By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Ava continued its stellar run through the South Central Association in 2018, running the table in league play and capturing its second straight Class 2 District 3 Championship.
The Bears looked poised to avenge the one-possession loss they suffered against Lamar in 2017, up 30-27 over the Tigers midway through the fourth quarter of the Class 2 quarterfinal game. However, a late touchdown drive by Lamar ended Ava’s season at 11-2.
The success in Ava has been built around consistent coaching and, like all successful stretches in high school football, stellar classes. The Bears placed four players on the All-State team: Caleb Johnson, Stephen Copeland, Iveck Chittenden, and Kayden Myers. Only Myers remains, but there is a wealth of experience that returns around him.
“We lost some kids that had been with us for several years,” head coach Dan Swofford said. “We have a good, solid core back that are in the same boat, though. There is optimism, but we know we cannot rely on past success. We have to make our own identity.”
The reigning SCA Coach of the Year has five offensive and six defensive starters back in the fold. Myers, a two-time All-State selection at linebacker, will be the center point of the defense. As a junior, he registered 100 tackles with a pair of interceptions.
Senior Josh Bray will be another force at linebacker after racking up 98 tackles and five sacks in 2018.
Another senior, Dylan King, began 2018 at linebacker, but his blocking ability left such an impact that he shifted to the line. He proceeded to earn an All-SCA Second Team nod on the defensive line. Those skills will be vital again, both on defense and in the run game.
Senior Jacob Easling will also find action on the defensive line.
The secondary will be populated by All-SCA First Team defensive back Nate Swofford, sophomore Spencer Skyles, and senior Mason Cole, a first-time varsity player who has impressed with his natural athleticism.
Swofford will also be tasked with taking over at quarterback for SCA Offensive Player of the Year Caleb Johnson. Swofford did all of his work on the ground as a junior, as he put up 768 rushing yards with 13 scores.
“He has to come in behind a quarterback that was a playmaker for four years,” Coach Swofford said. “I think he can do it, but like everything else, there will be a learning curve.”
He’ll be aided by a host of able-bodied ball carriers. Myers led the Bears with 217 carries, over a hundred more than any other player, with 1,137 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Skyles should also get increased carries, as will junior Zach Mendel, who returns from shoulder surgery.
“Our strength will continue to be the run game and what we do with the triple option. We probably have more experience than we’ve had in a long time.”
Mendel was also an All-SCA selection at receiver after finding the end zone three times last fall.
Another postseason honoree, Evan Horn, returns to anchor the offensive line in his senior campaign.
There will be a noticeable change in the coaching staff as well. Longtime offensive coordinator Joe Shantz has retired, taking over 40 years of experience with him. Swofford points to stability of his staff and the impact it has on the success in Ava, but has confidence in the acumen of new offensive coordinator Casey Merrifield.
“I’ve had a core group of coaches with me for years. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been good. We’ve been talking and teaching the same stuff for years, and I’ve coached everyone one of them so they know my language.”
The Bears are confident they will be able to do everything their previous two squads have. They aren’t resting on their laurels and have designs on a return to the state playoffs.
“There could be a learning curve early in the season. We’ll make some mistakes and you may wonder if we can get back to (that level). I think we can, but it’ll be a process of success, mistakes, success, mistakes, etc.”