By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
District football kicks off on Friday. Here is what to expect from the area’s three big-class districts.
So, the only team that has been competitive at this level is Kickapoo back in 2015. Joplin is the No. 3 seed and the task they have in front of them is daunting. Its first round opponent, Lee’s Summit, owns wins over Class 6 No. 4 Lee’s Summit West and Class 6 No. 7 Columbia Rock Bridge. From there they’d likely see Park Hill, Class 6 No. 6 with a half dozen players receiving D-1 interest. Conventional wisdom says that Joplin won’t win this district but there hasn’t been anything conventional about this team. The Eagles lost seemingly everything of importance from last year. Week 1 they looked dreadful against Glendale. All they’ve done since then is win eight straight games, earning them the Ozark Conference title and maybe most importantly, earning a district home game. Sure, the district is full of powers like Rockhurst and Lee’s Summit West, but Joplin has been so good offensively and improved so much defensively that it could be interesting. Sophomore quarterback Blake Tash has been an absolute stud. He’s passed for 1,818 and 14 touchdowns, but more importantly he’s protected the football. Tash is completing 75% of his passes and has thrown just two picks all season; it’s been a month and more than 100 attempts since he threw a pick. He also has one of the state’s most dynamic weapons in classmate Zach Westmoreland (1,135 yards from scrimmage, 17 total TDs). Westmoreland may lineup anywhere on the field. And, the emergence of yet another sophomore – Isaiah Davis – gives Joplin a three-headed attack and a ton of balance. Here’s the deal, in districts people are going to load up to stop Westmoreland on the outside. Davis has rushed for 303 yards in his first two starts at running back. Committing a safety to help over the top on Westmoreland and loading the box to make sure Davis doesn’t get going means that Spencer Cornett (51 receptions, 538 yards) and James Moman beating 1-on-1 coverage consistently could decide just how deep Joplin’s run is.
Hudl Film I Love: WR Zach Westmoreland, Joplin
At the beginning of the season I pegged him as the “Ozark Conference Breakout POY” and people thought I was crazy. Not to toot my own horn but, toot toot. I’ve heard a range of comparisons for who Westmoreland reminds people of, but for me it’s Dez Bryant. Westmoreland isn’t blazing fast, although he does pull away from people in the open field, but he’s a big, explosive receiver. You can’t press him off the line because of how strong he is. Attempting to jam him basically ends in him getting a free release which means six points. Westmoreland also has great hands and he’s great at high-pointing balls; you won’t see him drop many balls and some of the catches he makes are catches that only a select few receivers at his age can make. His catch radius almost seems limitless. Maybe his best attribute is what he does with the ball in his hands; he turns into a running back. He’s a rare talent. Coaches in the OC will be happy to see Joplin leaving. We’ll find out just how good he is in the coming weeks with potential matchups with Mario Goodrich (Lee’s Summit West/Nebraska) and Devin Haney (Park Hill/Northern Illinois).
This catch-all class again has a crazy split with the two districts containing local teams going opposite ways, meaning that we could see an Ozark vs. Nixa state championship. That would be fun. Carthage, Nixa and Ozark have all made Final Four runs since 2012. Both districts are filled with parity top to bottom.
It’s impossible to start anywhere else but here. The Tigers dropped their first two games, but have won six of their last seven and none of their games were ever in question. Carthage outscored seeds No. 2-4 by a combined 142-33. That’s crazy. Zeke Sappington has performed admirably at quarterback (1,485 pass yards, 14 TDs) and seems to be growing with every start and Arkell Smith might be the best offensive weapon in the Ozarks; he’s unstoppable on the perimeter. The threat of Smith has allowed Clay Newman (1,077 rush yards, 16 TDs) to thrive. When Carthage is physical in the trenches they are awfully good. It will take someone in this district going into that new stadium and physically beating them up to take the district title from them. Good luck… there’s a reason Carthage hasn’t lost a district game since moving to Class 5.
Best of the Rest
Nixa is the No. 2 seed, but which football team will show up in districts? Back in the day, this is a team that was known for slow starts to the season before heating up late and making a run. But, 2017 has been the inverse with Nixa starting the season 5-0 before losing four straight to end the season. In the Eagles defense, they ended the season with Webb City, Carthage, Ozark and Carl Junction. Nixa’s blueprint is simple; physical, grown-man football. Part of the battle might be mental; Nixa has lost five straight against Carthage… Neosho and Parkview are both in Year One of a new regime and there have been some growing pains. Going on the road and beating a quality football team is asking a lot, however keep in mind that both teams, especially Neosho, have been intensely competitive this year. The Cats lost three games by three points or fewer.
Hudl Film I Love: Carthage WR Arkell Smith
He might be the most athletic guy in the Ozarks. Smith is still getting used to the football thing and is still one of the best receivers in Missouri. He’s an all-state sprinter and jumper, which is part of the reason he’s hit opponents for 43-821-6 even though he’s typically receiving bracket coverage. He’s the Ozarks version of Odell Beckham Jr. They both have the track background, the highlight-reel catches and the most fluid movements. Smith has played decoy for much of this year after throwing a coming out party last fall and inviting the entire COC. His tape is full of stuff like him turning a simple out route into a 75-yard touchdown *see Republic* or him Mossin’ defenders that seem to be in perfect position *see Webb City, Nixa or Carl Junction*. His best football is ahead of him, let’s just hope local D-1s don’t let him walk too. *see Jaelon Acklin*
This district is a bit of a beautiful mess, so I’m not sure I can pick a projected winner here. Entering the season I would’ve sworn that Ozark was the favorite with Glendale and Lebanon right on their heels. Those teams are still the top three in some order, but Branson is a legitimate threat in Anthony Hays’ first season. Keep in mind that the Pirates beat Ozark, which is how they jumped to the 3-seed, and were conversion issues away from beating Nixa too. Including that Ozark game, Branson is 3-1 when Senior Kyle Hunn has a 100-yard game. Speaking of Ozark, the Tigers were my preseason favorite to finish top two in the COC… and then the injury bug took over. The season hasn’t gone quite the way anyone in Ozark expected but it can still be salvaged with a district championship run, something that hasn’t happened since 2012. Glendale and Lebanon have polar opposite playing styles but equally successful 6-3 seasons. Both are also hot as of late. Lebanon won four of its last five and Glendale has won five of its last six since getting rocked by West Plains and Hillcrest. Being hot in mid-October is half of the battle. Waynesville and Central have struggled this season. However, don’t let the Tigers record full you; they are capable of beating anyone in this district. Four of Waynesville’s losses have come by one possession. Since I’m not picking a favorite, we’ll do this:
Glendale wins if… they get stops. The Falcons never struggle offensively and 35 points should be enough to win football games. Alex Houston is doing Alex Huston things, but the defense has to do its part. If they can get back to last year’s bend but don’t break mentality, Glendale will win the district. I can’t write this without mentioning the fact that Huston has had three consecutive 4,000-yard, 50-touchdown seasons.
Lebanon wins if… they protect the ball. John Berry and Company have been grown men all year, but turnovers have been Lebanon’s downfall. Protecting the ball against Camdenton and Glendale probably means that Lebanon grabs a share of the Ozark Conference title.
Ozark wins if… they can regain their physical swag. If a game turns into a backyard brawl, Ozark is probably going to win; few teams in the area can match their physicality. Keep in mind, this team beat Carthage on the road and two of their losses came by a combined six points. The other two losses were to Webb City and Carl Junction. Yeah, this team is still good. If they control tempo by establishing the run and playing from ahead, that defense is good enough to finish games.
Hudl Film I Love: Lebanon RB John Berry
High school kids are probably too young to know who Mike Alstott is, but that’s who Berry reminds me of. He doesn’t run with a ton of wiggle, but why should he; he’s a 210-pound battering ram. He runs through arm tackles and punishes defenders that don’t embrace leverage. He’s probably going to break Brock West’s single-season and career rushing records thanks to six 200-yard games this season already. His style sets the tone for who Lebanon is as a program. His lead could be enough to get the Jackets back into the playoffs.