By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
For the third time in the last four seasons, West Plains won at least eight games, including a postseason win.
Naturally, that creates high expectations for the Zizzers, but the fact that Steve Ary enters his seventh season at the helm with 16 starters returning from last year’s 8-3 campaign makes the expectations for 2018 even higher.
The biggest name among the returning talent is standout running back Brayden Lidgard.
As a sophomore, Lidgard racked up 2,793 yards from scrimmage, 2,424 of which came on the ground, to go along with 39 total touchdowns. No Ozark Conference player has ever rushed for 2,500 yards, which could be a total Lidgard approaches with five seniors along the offensive line.
“Brayden Lidgard was our leading rusher and receiver and he will do some damage this year,” said Ary. “Brayden has trained really hard. He has the stuff you cannot coach. He is very talented. I’m glad he’s a Zizzer.”
Ary also returns junior Conner Rackley (1,272 passing yards, 367 rushing yards, 17 total touchdowns) at quarterback and an experienced quintet at the offensive line spots. Overall, he welcomes back several key pieces of an offense that scored 40 or more points in seven of 11 games last year.
“Rackley is really spinning the ball well,” said Ary. “We have a really solid offensive line in front of Conner and Brayden, consisting of 5 Seniors with Sebastian Agnew, Jake Swope, Dylan Scaggs, Jacob Bowers, Micah Caudel and David Cozort. We also return All-Ozark Conference H-Back Daniel Cobb. We are excited about the potential of this group.”
Seniors Parker Ramseur, Cobin Heath and Dalton Lucas, as well as junior Allen Marcak, will man the receiver spots and provide the ability to stretch opposing defenses. Garrett Warren could also figure into the passing game from his tight end spot.
“They all can run and have play making potential in our receiving corps,” said Ary. “They give us more speed than what we have had.”
West Plains has hung its hat on defense and this unit could be the best the Zizzers have had under Ary with All-OC picks Lane Jett (134 tackles, 4 INT) and Ian Ary (134 tackles, 18 TFL). As a unit, they forced 29 turnovers in 2017.
“We have nine guys back from the number one scoring defense in the Ozark Conference,” said Ary. “These guys are dawgs, led by linebacker Ian Ary and safety Lane Jett. We have five seniors on the back end of this group.”
Beau Ary (116 tackles, 2 INT), Kole Taylor (98 tackles, 5 PBU) and Bryson Collins (64 tackles) are also back, along with contributors Garel McGinley and Weston Mitchell.
Seniors Kyle Addison and Bryson Collins, along with juniors Eric Washington and Brady Robins, will set the tone along the defensive front.
Sophomore Titus Seeley could also see reps at linebacker.
“Defensively we will have a mindset and attitude to destroy,” said Ary. “We want to break your will. They are my kind of guys and I expect them to be the most physical defense in the league. I expect them to be the best defense in the league. They want to be the best.”
The Ozark Conference will look different with reigning champion Joplin joining the COC Large. While Springfield Central will replace them, West Plains knows that ultimately to get what they want, they must go through Southwest Missouri Class 4 powers Webb City and Carl Junction.
Those two have accounted for each of West Plains’ last four season-ending losses.
Few programs have been more successful than Webb City and Carl Junction over the last half decade, which is a level that the Zizzers are eager to get to.
Ary and company believe they have enough to take another step towards realizing that dream.
“We know we can play with anybody; we have experience and confidence,” said Ary. “We learned that we have to play a little cleaner and our mindset has to be one at a time. We will answer the bell to fight. There is never a week off. We know it. We cannot have a bad game, so we try to play perfect.
“These guys love each other, they like to play together, and they have fun. They are special. We just must put our egos aside and be content with the fight every Friday night. We have so many dudes that can play. We could have 10 different stars on 10 different Fridays. They have busted their butts. I am excited!”
West Plains will open the 2018 season on Aug. 24 at home against Hillcrest.