By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Ozark enjoyed 15 wins from 2017 through 2018, but ran into a buzzsaw last fall. The Tigers went 1-9, with their lone win coming against Carl Junction.
The regular season ended with Joplin, Carthage, and Webb City, each of which were state semifinalists in their respective classifications. Eureka then bounced the Tigers in the first round of district play, a fact that has stuck with many returning players.
“A lot of these guys have been chomping at the bit since we drove home from Eureka last fall,” head coach Chad Depee said.
While five weeks of setbacks may cause a team to sleepwalk through the end of a schedule, the high caliber of opponents had the opposite effect on Ozark. The draw of big matchups rejuvenated the players and that energy has carried over into the start to fall camp this year.
“That’s as good of football as you will play in high school. Our last three weeks of practice were our best. When you look at a long season, that’s not always the case. People sometimes want to just pack up and go. Because of those weeks and how much competition that we had, that’s led into the fun we’re experiencing right now.”
Ozark lost 12 starters from that group, four of which are playing at the next level, including Missouri offensive lineman Trenton Sederwall. What the Tigers do return is 20 seniors and a large group that got valuable playing time as underclassmen.
As always, the Tiger backfield will feature a gaggle of ball carriers. Seniors Chance Strickler and Max Schilling join junior Ethan Pritchard as the primary rushers from a season ago. Strickler got the bulk of the work with 183 yards on 120 attempts and two scores. He also threw for 618 yards and three touchdowns under center.
Junior Cannon Cox will push him for the quarterback job this fall.
Schilling and Pritchard combined for 315 yards and three total touchdowns, while juniors Tylr Bolin and Logan Baldwin will also compete for touches.
Senior Jake Skaggs returns to the receiver position as one of two All-Central Ozark Conference selections. He caught 17 passes for 265 yards and a score in 2018.
They will all be behind an offensive line that will have to work to find its footing in order to improve on the seven points per game that Ozark averaged in 2018. Junior Hunter Tennison is the primary returner at 6’5” and 215 pounds. Still, Depee expects an increase in aggression from his backs to make up for that inexperience.
“We’re a year better and faster. We’ll be able to run the ball and be the physical team that we want to be,” he said. “You have juniors that have played under the lights and you expect them to now play as upperclassmen.”
Defensively, Pritchard will plug back into the linebacker spot after notching 44 tackles and an All-COC Third Team selection. Schilling, Bolin, and Baldwin have experience at the position as well.
Cox, Thomas Rushing, and Colton Casteel will return to the secondary, while Tucker Moeller rounds out the group as the lone senior.
The eagerness of this group to get the season started has pleased Depee and the rest of the coaches. They will need to maintain that level in order to contend with another difficult crop of COC opponents.
“We have kids that want to continue to get better. This locker room likes to hang out and work with each other. They’re willing to bring energy into practice and it’s amazing how two hours goes by in a hurry when everyone is on the same page.”