By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
For the second time in the last three seasons, Carthage advanced to the Class 5 Final Four in 2017 and continued its claim as the best Class 5 program in the Ozarks.
And – with 14 starters returning from last year’s 9-4 campaign – the Tigers could again find itself in the thick of a state championship hunt come November.
For that to happen, Carthage coach Jon Guidie has a simple formula.
“We have to continue to build depth at all positions,” said Guidie. “Our kids need to keep growing and caring for each other. This is a close group of seniors that have played a lot of football together.”
Leading this group will be senior dual-threat quarterback Zeke Sappington.
Sappington passed for 2,129 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for 550 yards and seven more scores. He earned All-COC Large honors and his performance down the stretch was instrumental in Carthage’s postseason run. The Tigers averaged 40 PPG over their final six games entering a semifinal showdown with eventual state champion Staley.
“Zeke has matured a lot, really since Week 5 last season,” said Guidie. “He had a great off-season in the weight room and is bigger, faster and stronger. I expect him to have a bigger leadership role this year. He is a smart player who understands our offense and sees the big picture.”
The Tigers will also benefit from the return of three starters along its front with two-way starters Andrew Raney and Oscar Campa leading the way.
Guidie has been known for the ability of his offense to stretch teams vertically, but part of the reason why that’s possible is how good his teams have been historically at establishing the run. Carthage averaged nearly six yards per rush a season ago.
While Sappington will again have his opportunities to toss the pigskin around, Carthage will likely feature a steady run game too.
Sapppington lost his favorite target and one of the most dynamic receivers in the O-Zone era in current Central Missouri freshman Arkell Smith. Replacing his production (65 receptions, 1,201 yards, 9 TD) will be difficult, along with fellow departure Clay Newman (1,309 rush yards, 19 TD), but Carthage’s cupboard is hardly bare.
Jayden Morgan could emerge as one of the most dynamic perimeter threats in the Ozarks. As a junior he finished second on the team in receptions (21) and receiving yards (409), but no Smith should mean more targets for Morgan.
Morgan also added 59 tackles and four interceptions defensively.
“Jayden should have a great year,” said Guidie. “He did last year too but was overshadowed by Arkell. He is a great two-way player, made some big plays for us on defense. He is a great route runner and can get himself open.”
Replacing All-COC pick Newman in the backfield will be a “by committee” approach with senior Blake Schrader and junior Tyler Mueller receiving the majority of those carries.
Defensively, Carthage will be headlined by All-COC linebacker Colton Winder who is back after racking up a team-high 140 tackles last season.
Schrader is also a returning linebacker after a 99-tackle junior campaign in which he also forced three fumbles and recovered three more.
Guidie is also excited about the growth of juniors Trulyn and Bobby Kendrick. He describes the brotherly duo as strong and athletic. They have the versatility to play multiple positions.
Senior Tucker Downing is expected to contribute on both sides of the ball. The receiver had a great summer in 7v7 and will also see reps in the defensive backfield.
Carthage will again look to navigate a conference that is home to the best football in southwest Missouri. The program’s ability to do that will again determine if the Tigers will get to host throughout district play where they’ve won 19 of their last 20 games.
Opening the season with Nixa, Carl Junction and newcomer Joplin will test Carthage right out of the gate. The Eagles went 8-2 last fall, winning the Ozark Conference title in their last season as a full league member.
“The COC should be very competitive once again,” said Guidie. “Joplin will add another dimension to an already tough conference.”
Carthage opens the 2018 season at home against Nixa on Aug. 24.