By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The SRVC has been the definition of parity over the last half decade; five years and four different teams with at least a share of the conference title. Last year it was Diamond’s turn. Lockwood, Jasper and Miller have also won championships since 2012. Greenfield is still playing 8-man football, which means there will be six games standing between someone and the SRVC championship. Here’s what you should know.
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1. Pierce City
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Can Diamond defend its title?
Last year was a special season for Diamond. It wasn’t just the fact that Diamond won the SRVC, but the ‘Cats eight wins were their most in a single-season in more than a decade. Keep in mind this is a program that won seven total games from 2005-2010. Ben Glidewell was 15-7 in two seasons at Diamond. But, he’s now at St. Joe Benton and Curtis Horton is now in charge. He brings college experience to the Wildcats and he’ll return a pair of horses in skill guy Chris Maturino and lineman Isaac McLaughlin. There are several unknowns with this team, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare.
Sarcoxie has righted the ship…
In 2014 and 2015, Sarcoxie had back-to-back 1-8 seasons. Now, entering this season, Sarcoxie might be the favorite to win the conference. Russell Ellis returns arguably the best player in the conference in senior quarterback Chris Comerford. Comerford was the SRVC Offensive Player of the Year and first-team All-SRVC as a defensive back too. The Bears should be huge upfront, led by Raul Reyes, another All-SRVC pick. Running the flexbone offense behind a huge offensive line with a dual-threat quarterback is a really good situation to be in.
Youth movement in full effect at Pierce City…
Pierce City had just five seniors last year and now all of that youth and inexperience will be at the center of a conference and district championship push. Brad Hocker has a threesome that nobody else does in the Kleiboeker Brothers. Donell is the reigning SRVC Defensive Player of the Year (124 tackles, 4 TFL) that also accounted for more than 600 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns. His twin, Dallas, had 95 tackles but also racked up 591 receiving yards. The youngest of the bunch, Jackson, was an impact player on both sides of the ball. Hocker also brings back Gage Brown, who is a legitimate threat to unseat Comerford as Offensive POY after passing for 1,231 yards, rushing for 678 yards and totaling 18 touchdowns. Pierce City has had just one season above .500 since 2010, this group will change that and could add an SRVC title as the cherry on top.
Luke Rader takes over at Lockwood…
For Rader, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect; he gets the dream job of coaching where he went to high school. The adjustment period won’t be much as he’s been on staff as an assistant for the last two years. He’s been a head coach in the SRVC so understanding the style of play won’t be an adjustment either. And, maybe most importantly, he returns a strong group of seniors that will serve as the foundation for what he wants as Lockwood. They aren’t big, but they have athletes all over the field. Jobe Edwards, Josh Osterdyk and Justin Nentrup are returning to the backfield. All-Everything receiver Logan Sparkman is again back at receiver and Brady Oeltjen is one of the best defensive players in the league. In a year where there’s a ton of parity, this Lockwood team has as many tools as anyone else to compete for the conference championship.
The rest of the conference
Greenfield isn’t eligible to win the SRVC title, but the Wildcats have adjusted to 8-man football magnificently. Last year they made a run to the Final Four before losing to Sacred Heart. Gone are familiar faces like Jarrett Esposito, Draven Stapp and Jalen Roby, all of whom will be playing college football this fall. Greenfield Football may not look quite the same, but Jason Smith will have some talent to work with in Year One. Charles Servoss rushed for 1,228 yards and 17 touchdowns and is back as the feature back. Bailey Baker was a stud at corner and will now take over as quarterback. I also look for youthful defenders Gage Burns and Quin Morrow to make major impacts after starting as a freshman and sophomore, respectively. After losing to Sacred Heart in the playoffs, despite beating them during the regular season, Greenfield is looking forward to hosting Sacred Heart on Aug. 25… Liberal hasn’t had a winning season since 2009, but that might change this fall. The Bulldogs return 20 starters and Matt McKee is optimistic because of that. Three of Liberal’s losses came by 11 points or fewer. With four All-SRVC picks back on defense and Noah Harris returning to his running back spot, Liberal could be a sleeper in the conference race… The Jamie LaSalle era begins in Miller and there couldn’t be more excited. His dad is a legendary coach in the town, he played at Miller and now he has his dream job. Few have been more innovative than LaSalle on either side of the ball. He’ll need that innovation with the Cardinals having just two seniors on the roster. This move isn’t about the now, it’s about the long term. LaSalle and sophomore quarterback Kaul Kleeman will grow together and this team will compete for SRVC titles sooner rather than later… David Pitts struggled to start his first year at Jasper, going 1-5 in his first six games. But, the Eagles ended the season by going 2-2 and both of those losses were by less than a touchdown. Jasper does have some holes to fill, but there are several returners that could have great seasons. Caleb Brown is one of the best two-way starters in the conference. Mac Rice is a stud defensive back that will also transition to quarterback and Logan Winchester might be the best pass rusher in the SRVC. Jasper won 28 games from 2013-15, expect the Eagles to trend back towards that direction soon.
Sarcoxie would be the fifth different program to claim a conference championship in the last six years. With what Russell Ellis returns they’re my favorite, but the margin between everyone is paper thin. I would be shocked if anyone in the SRVC ran the table. In fact, I think it’s more likekly that multiple teams split the league than someone winning it outright.
Player of the Year: Chris Comerford, Sarcoxie
You watch him on tape and you just love the command that he has of the offense. He rushed for 1,149 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago, while also passing for 350 yards and four more scores. He makes excellent reads, often waiting until the last minute to pull the ball back and tuck it. When this happens, he becomes a fullback and runs about as physically as anyone you’ll see in the area. With the size Sarcoxie returns up front he should have plenty of holes to pick from. He also returned two kicks for scores and had 105 tackles and three interceptions defensively. He’s the total package as a football player.
Offensive MVP: RB Jobe Edwards, Lockwood
Edwards is the lead back in an offense that is run heavy. Lockwood operating out of the split back veer means Edwards will get plenty of touches and there aren’t many better “one cut and go” backs. He is excellent about finding a crease and attacking it. He rushed for 687 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Having Logan Sparkman on the outside will help keep boxes soft and there are several backfield mates that will make it difficult to only gameplan on Edwards.
Defensive MVP: LB Donell Kleiboeker, Pierce City
He won the award a year ago thanks to 124 tackles. He’s tailor made to play in the SRVC. He loves to get downhill and lives around the line of scrimmage. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better defender in the conference in terms of coming off of blocks to make plays. He’s very much a see ball, get ball kind of linebacker. Running the play opposite of him still doesn’t keep him from making the play.
Breakout Player of the Year: TE/LB Caleb Brown, Jasper
As a sophomore Brown was one of the most productive players in the SRVC. His 6-foot-3, 220lb frame is almost as imposing as his versatility. Brown tracked down 118 tackles last fall defensively. As a receiver he caught 10 passes for 225 yards. Coach Pitts is still getting his players acclimated to his system. Look for him to find ways to get Brown involved.
Diamond at Pierce City
Sarcoxie at Jasper
Sacred Heart at Greenfield
Greenfield at Osceola
Jasper at Miller
Pierce City at Green Forest
Stockton at Jasper
Sarcoxie at Lockwood
Pierce City at Sarcoxie
Lockwood at Jasper