By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Willard has been a mainstay in the district championship game over the last half-decade, but quarterfinals have eluded them. After four appearances in the game over the last six years, the Tigers have designs on capturing the crown in 2019.
They went 4-7 last year, but return a massive crop of experience. There are 21 seniors and 18 players that have started at some point.
“This would be the most I’ve returned in 17 years as a head coach,” Brock Roweton said. “We bring back 10 guys on offense started and played every snap last year.”
That truth has the Tigers as confident as ever heading into the 2019 campaign. The experience factor cannot be overstated in Roweton’s camp.
“When you become a varsity starter, there is just so much attention to detail. They may not get it as a junior starter, but those same details that you preach, they magically get done in your second year as a starter. We’re way ahead of the game on execution.”
The only hole on offense comes at center. What the Tigers do return on the line is All-Central Ozark Conference selection Carson Gehring, who enters his third year as a starter. With the ability to bench 380 pounds and squat 585, Roweton calls him the strongest student at Willard.
He will be joined by Dennis Triff and Dawson and Dillon Merrill on the offensive line that Willard always prides. Triff stands at 6’4” and 310 pounds, while Dawson and Dillon clock in at 255 and 210 pounds, respectively.
Senior Ethan Thompson and junior Marshall Swadley, both All-State performers in the spring, will be the primary ball carriers. Thompson racked up 403 yards and three touchdowns, while Swadley should improved on his 109 yards.
“We have big physical backs ever year,” said Roweton. “We have more kids that can catch and run, but I expect us to be very similar to what we’ve been for the last six to seven years.”
Reece Dawson, another senior, is back under center with a year of starting and some college interest in tow. He completed 77 of 164 passes for 939 yards and six scores, while also being the top returning rusher with 473 yards.
Roweton has been impressed with his evolution as the commander of the offense.
“He is a way different quarterback mentally than a year ago. He had all the physical tools last year, but has just gotten more comfortable.”
Senior Tyler Harre will be key in both the pass and run game as he returns to tight end. He will also see time on the defensive line, along with fellow senior Bryden Troy.
Austin Joplin is also a three-year starter who will be back at linebacker following an All-COC Third Team selection.
Noah Pfeifer and Garrett Martin will be senior staples at cornerback, while fellow senior Jed Brandon could likely be moved around to several spots on defense as Roweton lauded his versatility.
If nothing else, Willard feels prepared heading into the fall. The size is always a bonus, but the amount of snaps this team has collectively seen will pay dividends in another tough COC schedule.
“With this many players back, there are a lot more varsity-type players both physically and mentally. The focus has been good and the success you’ll have as a team comes down to attention to detail.”