By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Curtis Jasper’s third season at Joplin is not one that will be forgotten anytime soon.
The Eagles, overridden with underclassmen, won eight straight games to end the program’s era in the Ozark Conference with an outright league title.
And now, entering their first season in the loaded Central Ozark Conference, the Eagles are hungry for more.
“Last year’s team was young but came out and worked hard at getting better each week,” said Jasper. “It is a great foundation to build on top of. The question now is can this group continue to build on the amount of team and individual accountability that last year’s group did.”
Joplin will have a great starting point.
The Eagles return 16 starters from last year’s 8-2 edition. That includes the team’s leading passer, leading receiver, two of its top three tackles leaders and a pair of 300-yard rushers.
Leading the way will be junior quarterback Blake Tash.
Tash passed for 2,072 yards and 15 touchdowns with just three interceptions, completing nearly 75 percent of his attempts. As part of his efficiency, Tash went more than 100 passes without throwing an interception during the stretch run of the season.
He’ll also have his favorite weapon returning, classmate Zach Westmoreland, who earned Class 6 All-State honors with a team-high 74 receptions for 921 yards and six touchdowns. He also rushed for 331 yards and 11 more scores, adding an additional touchdown via punt return.
“They are both multi-sport athletes that continue to grow through preparation and competition,” said Jasper. “Blake makes great decisions and Zach is a great athlete.”
Joplin averaged 36 PPG last season and were about as balanced as it gets, averaging 218 rushing yards per game and 217 passing yards per game. Tash and Westmoreland, along with returners James Moman (25 receptions, 266 yards, TD) and Jake Flowers (12 receptions, 66 yards), will shoulder the work in the aerial attack, the ground game is left in the capable hands (literally) of Isaiah Davis.
After primarily being a defensive starter, Davis shifted to running back to end the season, rushing for 376 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Joplin’s final three games. His 205-pound frame make him one of the biggest backs in the Ozarks.
Davis will be running behind an experienced and talented offensive line with seniors Dylan Wemer (6’2, 250lbs), Maurice Auberry (6’5, 260lbs), Jaydn Withrow (6’2, 257lbs) and Tyler Smith (6’5, 263lbs) all returning.
Joplin’s projected offensive line will average 255lbs and the quartet of Wemer, Auberry, Withrow and Smith were All-Ozark Conference last season.
The Eagles will also be stout defensively, led by junior defensive back Elijah Eminger. As a junior, he led the team with four interceptions to go along with 95 tackles, earning him All-OC honors.
“Eli has great instincts,” said Jasper. “He’s worked hard in track this spring as well as the weight room all offseason so we’re expecting him to be even more productive this season.”
Seniors Evan Bernot and Jacob Booe, as well as junior James Boyd, also return to solidify the defensive line. Seniors Nic Lewis and Luke Kuehnel – both All-Ozark Conference picks – also return and classmate Da’Ron Morgan will again be in the defensive backfield.
Junior kicker Garrett Landis, nearly All-Everything as a sophomore, will be one of the most productive kickers in Southwest Missouri.
Joplin will also receive contributions and depth from a slew over underclassmen, including seniors Jack Myers (OL/DL), Keaton Bradley (DB), Timmy Smith (TE/LB) and Codie Hidalgo (DE), as well as juniors Logan Myers (OL/DL), Zech Stayton (ATH) and Simeon Barba (WR/DB). Sophomore Nathan Glades also impressed throughout the summer with his carries at team camps.
Joplin now walks into the COC, which has sent four different teams to the Final Four since 2013. That doesn’t include Carl Junction, who has lived in the state rankings throughout the Doug Buckmaster epoch.
It’ll also give the Eagles the chance to play Carthage and Neosho, in addition to Webb City and Carl Junction.
While the conference has no other Class 6 teams, playing in the COC will likely be better preparation for districts, an area Joplin has struggled since moving to Class 6.
“We are very excited to join the COC and gain natural rivalries,” said Jasper. “It is obviously a very competitive conference which forces each team to play their very best each and every week. We are very excited about this upcoming season. We have had good numbers show up every day and work hard at summer workouts. This should produce players who are more physically and mentally ready to produce on the field.”
Joplin opens the 2018 season on Aug. 24 on the road against Willard. The Eagles home-opener will be on Aug. 31 with Webb City coming to Junge Stadium. Joplin will close the regular season on Oct. 19 at home against Carl Junction.