By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Records may not always be indicative of the progress of a program. Anthony Hays believes that to be the case after collective six wins in his first two seasons in Branson.
Despite a 2-8 record in 2018, Hays takes pride in many things the Pirates accomplished.
“We’re going in the right direction. My first year, we were 4-7, but I felt like we had a better team last year. We had a tougher schedule and a couple close losses,” he said. “We lost to Webb City by two and Nixa by four. We’re going to have to get over that hump of not only playing teams close but delivering wins.”
Branson started 2-1 with victories over Republic and Ozark, but the Pirates’ first four losses (Neosho, Webb City, Joplin, Carthage) came to teams with a combined 42 wins. Republic would avenge its season-opening defeat by knocking off Branson in the first round of districts.
Now, the Pirates expect to have nine starters and 16-17 seniors back, many carrying an improved understanding of Hays’ system.
“We were pretty anemic on offense last year. Part of that was because we were young,” said Hays. “We had a new running back and quarterback and had graduated a lot from the 2017 team. To have some familiarity with the offense, it helps when you’re installing things. I expect us to be better this year.”
Junior Jay Hill showed flashes of All-Conference talent last year as he picked up 596 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
Fellow junior Brady Blackwell is also the leading receiver back from last fall with 14 catches for 269 yards. Junior Stephen Derks and sophomore Ethan Jones should also expect to get more targets.
The quarterback position will feature some competition as junior Dalton Muenchau and sophomore Tristan Pierce will battle for snaps.
Two full-time starters and another tandem that received experience as underclassmen will return to the offensive line. Seniors Landon Hursh and Isaac Mabe will join junior Tyke Wells as featured names in the trenches.
Defense was the stronger unit in 2018, something that Hays believes is a result of the prototypical mix of talent and teaching.
“We had a stretch where we were not scored on for 10 straight quarters,” he said. “A lot of that had to do with our seniors, but a lot of it also had to do with our mentality. My defensive coordinator does a great job of installing an aggressive defense. We want to be good tacklers. That’s our culture.”
Senior defensive back Ty Werling returns as the only All-Central Ozark Conference selection still in Branson. He posted 131 tackles last fall, second highest on the team, with one sack and one interception.
Dshawn Craigg will be another staple of the secondary after collecting 76 tackles as a sophomore. Pierce should see time in that unit as well.
Junior Cristian Berumen and sophomore Colton Cooper should be key factors at linebacker. Ethan Stout, another junior, will also see time at linebacker and on the defensive line.
The priority this season is for Branson to continue its upward trend so that it can start reflecting in the win column.
“We consider it a challenge to get Branson back to being a prominent team like it was in the 80’s and 90’s,” said Hays. “Our kids accept that. They’ve put in the work and I like where our attitude and effort are.”