By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
It has been a decade since Brock Roweton took over at Willard, and the coach wants to get back to challenging the COC-Large elite.
The 7-5 mark the Tigers put up last year included four wins by a single possession. After a season-opening loss to Nixa, the other four defeats told a different story.
“We won a ton of close games last year. The difference is when we played Carthage, Carl Junction, and Webb City, those were not close,” said Roweton.
The second loss to Carthage bounced Willard from the district championship game. Big-play options like receiver Kenny Chambers and quarterback Quintin Batson are gone along with All-State defensive end Ethan Burson and kicker Brayden Swearingen.
Nine starters do return, along with a junior class that has impressed Roweton.
“We have more good players than we’ve ever had at Willard. Healthy, we will start 22 different kids which is something we haven’t done in my time here.”
That is a product of seven sophomores starting at some point in 2017. It starts with All-COC running back Garrett Rice, who racked up 779 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns last year. He also hauled in 30 passes for 299 yards.
Roweton describes Rice as having made the routine sophomore-to-junior jump and now looking like a 240-pound man.
New signal caller Reece Dawson will join him in the backfield. He got his first chance under center during Week 2 last year and helped deliver a 28-24 win over Bolivar. It was a learning experience and the 6’3” junior has since progressed enough to earn him the job permanently.
“That showed him how much he needed to develop,” said Roweton. “He has a fantastic arm. He didn’t quite understand how important footwork was and then he got thrown in and suddenly it mattered. He has put in a lot of work and gotten more consistent.”
Ethan Thompson will be another reliable backfield option after compiling 476 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore.
All-COC Third Team selection Tommy Tapia returns for his fourth year as a starter at defensive tackle. The first freshman to ever start for Roweton has grown into the strongest player at Willard, able to squat over 600 pounds and bench over 400.
Seniors Talon Heimbach and Cody Fees are also back as the leading tacklers from a season ago with 109 and 65, respectively. They expect to help anchor the defense along with junior linebackers Austin Joplin and Jed Brandon.
This many new faces in bigger starting roles can always lead to questions, but Roweton said the talent across the board could make the Tigers a contender again.
“If we can get consistent execution with all these new starters, we’ll have to win some close games. I’m hoping we can make a jump and compete with that upper echelon.”