Mt. Vernon football was the story of the postseason last year. The Mountaineers won five of their first six games before stumbling down the stretch with three straight losses. That rough finish dropped Mt. Vernon all the way to the fifth seed in Class 3 District 4.
The Mountaineers then became road Warriors by knocking off No. 4 Aurora, No. 1 Seneca and No. 2 Reeds Spring to win the district championship. The final two wins also avenged regular season losses. They would go on to finish runner-up in Class 3 to Maryville and finish with a 10-5 record.
Gone from that team are 11 all-district seniors that accounted for a major amount of production.
“They (the seniors) meant a ton to us. We kind of grew up together again. They were freshmen my first year back. They went through the whole four years of the program changing from the last head coach and system. They did a great job of buying in to what we are trying to do,” Cox said. “They provided good leadership and good examples of what it takes to get to where we were.”
Now the Mountaineers will have to move on, but the deep playoff run is helping in more ways than one. First, it provided younger players with an extra five weeks of practice last season.
“What that meant as a team is that we played a whole half of a season again on top of our 10-game schedule. We had five additional weeks of practice for our young guys that got a lot of experience running scout team stuff and our own stuff too,” Cox said. “We have a bunch of guys that have gotten some good experience, it is just if we can translate that over to the big show now.”
The second thing it did was get more kids interested in joining the program.
“What we were anticipating at the end of last year was to have a senior class of six guys or maybe seven,” Cox said. “We will have 16 seniors (this year), so we picked up 10 guys in that senior class that want to be a part of our program. Some of them are going to contribute in a big way. It is exciting to go from what you think will be a class of six and it turns out to be 16.”
The head of that senior group is returning Class 3 Defensive Player of the Year Will Boswell. Boswell pulled down 240.5 tackles last season with eight tackles for a loss. He also tallied five interceptions with three forced fumbles, a blocked kick and one fumble recovery. He will see time on offense running the ball this season.
“He (Boswell) means a lot more than just his ability. He has a demeanor about that is just magnetic. He really raises the level of everybody else around him,” Cox said. “The thing that I caution Will about is trying to make every single play. (We tell him) to just play the game, do his job and not worry about the fact that we have 10 guys missing off of last year’s defense. Just trying to stay in his role and not do too much.”
The offensive and defensive lines will be strength this year with seniors Colton Hicks, Luke McKinzie and Elijah Bolin leading the way. McKinzie earned all-district honors on the offensive line last season. Noah Hardesty is also back for his senior season after playing as a freshman and sophomore. There is a lot of depth behind those four to give Mt. Vernon a wealth of options on the line.
Hunter Williams, Sam Burks and Justin Moore will be joining Boswell in the backfield and at linebacker. Moore is a transfer from Cabot, Ark. Carson Bowman will also see carries on offense. He is listed at 5’8” and 160 pounds, but he is one of the team’s purely strongest player with a bench press over 300 pounds.
Zach Jones and Mason Bailey are in the mix for the quarterback position with both of them also likely seeing time on defense at linebacker and defensive back, respectively.
Cale Miller and Kelly Vaughn are two basketball players that are joining the team this year. Miller will be a linebacker and defensive end while Vaughn will step in at wide receiver and defensive back. Jagen Prescott will join Vaughn in the secondary.
Seniors Patrick Lester and Justin Maples will also join the team after they return from Fort Leonard Wood where they have been training with the Army National Guard in preparation for their post-high school careers. The two will be wide receivers and defensive backs.
The first goal for Mt. Vernon this season is to represent in the new Big 8 East Division that features traditional rival Aurora along with former COC Small schools Catholic, Hollister, Marshfield, Reeds Spring and Rogersville.
“We are going to play so hard to try and win this first Big 8 Conference with the new alignment. We feel like we have a responsibility to uphold the Big 8 over on the east side. That is exciting for our guys in that we haven’t played a lot of these teams,” Cox said. “We definitely have a good rivalry with Reeds Spring and Springfield Catholic and they are both going to be very tough. The problem is that I don’t know about the other teams because they have new coaches. That is a goal for us to win that side of the conference.”
The second goal is another deep postseason run.
“We are at that point now where we want to compete for a district championship every year. Of all the games we won last year, our victory in the district championship game might be as happy as I have seen our players. It was like this huge weight was off of them and that joy that I saw from our players and fans from winning that game really meant a lot to us,” Cox said. “We plan to compete at that highest level now. These guys know that those expectations are there whether it is from me or from the city of Mt. Vernon and the surrounding community. People want us to do well.”
Mt. Vernon opens the season on Aug. 24 at home against Monett.