By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
West Plains Football will have a new feel in 2019.
Ozarks coaching mainstay Steve Ary has moved south to Arkansas after resurrecting the Zizzer football program. From 2009-2012, West Plains went 4-37 with a pair of winless seasons. Last year, West Plains went 12-1 with a district championship.
Matt Perkins takes over after serving on Ary’s staff for the past four seasons. Previously he spent six years at Willow Springs. He inherits a team that has averaged nearly nine wins per season over the last four years.
While the success can’t be ignored, Perkins is excited to add his own wrinkle to the program.
“I plan to keep a lot of what I have learned from Steve in terms of organizing practice and preparing for opponents,” said Perkins. “From a schematic standpoint we will be a bit more up tempo offensively and probably air it out a bit more than the past couple seasons, but we don’t want to lose the physical mindset that has helped West Plains play with an edge the previous few years. It’s a fine line to walk.
“I think each job is unique. There is an expectation here in the community for the program to be handled a certain way and I am proud to be a part of it. I’m a big believer that if you do things the right way and treat kids the right way good things will follow.”
With just nine starters returning, now is as good of a time as any to make changes. Fortunately, the cupboard is hardly bare for Perkins.
He brings back one of the most experienced backfields in Missouri with four-year starter Connor Rackley back at quarterback and Mr. 2K Brayden Lidgard back at running back.
Rackley threw for 1,186 yards and 19 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He completed nearly 68% of his passed. Lidgard rushed for 2,387 yards and 37 touchdowns on 261 carries. He added 10 receptions for 232 yards and three scores.
Both guys will play college football somewhere in 2020 and give West Plains the nucleus to be competitive in Year One under Perkins.
“I can’t say enough good things about Connor Rackley,” said Perkins. “He puts in a ton of work behind the scenes to hone his craft. He also is like having an extra coach on staff. He will have a role in weekend game planning. We have changed a lot of the passing terminology and he’s mastered it and can direct the guys around him. He will make a great coach someday.
“As a coach you hate to place that much importance on one player but Lidgard certainly warrants that attention. He has a chance every play to go the distance. We have focused on finding ways to get him the ball in space in some ways that he hasn’t always been featured. But you have to be careful because you can’t get away from what has been good to you either. What makes 5 special is his ability to set up defenders. He can win with no angles and win with no space, but he is also really good at creating advantages in space with patience and how he attacks a defender.”
Senior Allen Marcak also returns after being one of Rackley’s favorite targets last season. A factor through the air or on the ground, Marcak hauled in 23 passes for 419 yards and seven touchdowns. He added 217 yards and another score on the ground.
Senior defensive linemen Eric Washington (60 tackles, 19 TFL in 2018) and Brady Robins – both All-Ozark Conference selections, as well as junior linebacker Titus Seley (79 tackles, 10 TFL in 2018) will lead the defense.
This unit allowed just 7 PPG last fall.
What will dictate success for West Plains is how the pieces fit around the returners.
The Zizzers must replace an entire offensive line, one that has featured Division One prospects over the last several years. They’ll be inexperienced and young, but will have the raw tools to compete immediately.
“We will likely be younger up front than most this season,” said Perkins. “One focus has been trying to get them strong. It’s difficult to expect a sophomore to win against seniors in a one on one situation but we are going to have to be able to do that. I think one way they have matured is by taking the expectations and embracing it.”
Perkins is also expecting senior Caden Parker and sophomore Connor Lair to take on larger roles this season.
“Connor Lair is returning as a guy with a lot of experience on our defense who got quality minutes and produced as a freshman last year,” said Perkins. “As a 6-foot, 240-pound sophomore who can move, he will snag a starting job on offense and be expected to be one of our few two-way players this season.
“Caden played a lot a season ago and works as hard as any I’ve been around. His teammates have found him to be a leader and he will be in on a lot of plays.”
For a program that once was happy to just win a game, the standard has changed.
The expectation in West Plains is to now compete for conference and district championships. Perkins won’t get an exemption from those expectation in Year One, something he’s already accepted.
He believes the most important thing you can instill in a program is a competitive fire, in the classroom, in the weight room and on the field.
His challenge this year, as he prepares his team to compete for titles, will be getting everyone acclimated with the changes he’ll make and seeing the overall big picture success without little temporary failures hinder the end goal.
“We will need to trust the process and be able to put the bad behind us,” said Perkins. “There will be moments that things will look out of sorts with the younger guys on the offensive line and in the secondary. It can be difficult for the guys that were a part of the success a year ago to worry about what’s going on around them when things break down a bit.
“We need the seniors to lead when times are tough. In order to overcome some of those mistakes we have to be the best at ball control and situational football something Steve preached on the daily and I will continue to focus on with the Zizzers.”
West Plains will open the 2019 season at Hillcrest on Aug. 30. The Zizzers will host Rolla the following Friday in their home opener.