By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The 2018 season was about growth for Lockwood.
Coming off a final four run, the Tigers had a thin senior class and were forced to start underclassmen all over the field.
Now, entering Luke Rader’s third season at his alma mater, what was a weakness a year ago should be a strength of a team with high expectations. Those same sophomores and juniors from a year ago are now juniors and seniors with Friday night experience.
“The nice part about that group is their resiliency,” Rader said. “When they were together as 7th- and 8th-graders, they didn’t win a game and were blown out about every night. A lot of kids would have packed it in when that happened, but they’ve continued to work and get better. Due to that and getting older, there has been a jump in the tangible things. They’ve grown, plus gotten stronger and more athletic. Now we need to make sure we’ve matured mentally and can eliminate some of the things that hurt us last year.”
Lockwood will return 16 starters this fall, giving Rader a solid nucleus to improve on last year’s 6-5 record.
All-State defensive lineman Spencer Neal is the biggest name returning after a monster sophomore season. He’s been a starter for Lockwood in the trenches since his freshman year.
Neal will be counted on to anchor a defense that should be much-improved with eight starters returning.
“He’s a big, strong kid, but his greatest asset has been being coachable,” Rader said. “He listens and does what he’s asked, which allows him to better use his size and strength.”
Senior Damien Jordan and junior Lane Dunlap return to the linebacking corps a year removed from finishing first and second in tackles. Both are strong backers that hit anything and everything in sight.
Dunlap was an All-Southwest Conference selection at linebacker and running back. Jordan, an All-SWC linebacker, also led the team in interceptions (2).
Seniors Gaege Queen and Ryan Sheets earned All-SWC honors at defensive back and defensive line, respectively. Senior Eliab Cifuentes will return to his linebacker spot as well.
Juniors Blaine Garver and Jamie Kramer add athleticism to Lockwood’s defense, as well as experience after starting as sophomores.
Offensively, junior quarterback Max Schnelle returns with a full year of starting experience under his belt. As a sophomore, he passed for nearly 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, something that is a rarity in Lockwood’s splitback veer offense.
Neal is joined by Jordan and junior Reese Fyfe on the offensive line. With fellow juniors Quentin Raymond, Eli Friend and Gabe Bench providing depth.
With Queen, Garver and Kramer returning as three of Schnelle’s favorite targets, as well as Dunlap and Cifuentes at running back, Lockwood has the potential to be explosive offensively.
“We are hopeful we will have several guys returning that can help us offensively,” Rader said. “I think those guys understand that us spreading the ball around helps them in the long run, and while they may not get the overwhelming stats, it helps all of us to be more successful if we have a lot of guys involved.”
Being the smallest school in a conference full of historically strong football programs, Lockwood will have its work cut out each and every Friday night.
However, similar to Thayer, Skyline and Lamar, a brutal conference schedule against bigger opponents could help the Tigers come district playoff time.
Lockwood is just two years removed from a final four run which came in a year where the Tigers didn’t win the conference championship.
Rader understands the challenges that are presented by playing in the Southwest Conference. His program doesn’t talk much about winning titles. They’re focused on sustained growth, peaking at the right time and health.
“Our conference is pretty tough,” Rader said. “There are some teams that have a lot of athletic ability, and some good coaches that make it tough on you. Facing good competition numerous weeks in the regular season can really help point out mistakes you’re making before districts. So, it’s definitely a plus to see those quality teams throughout the year. The big thing is if you can make it to weeks 10-plus healthy when you’re playing several very competitive games in the regular season.
“We don’t talk about trying to win championships, we try to focus on doing things the way a champion would do them. That starts with trying to get better every day in practice. If we can do that, we will be in a good place by the end of the year. The other big thing we need is to stay healthy.”
Lockwood will open the 2019 season at home on Aug. 30 against Pierce City.