By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Sarcoxie put forth another strong showing under head coach Russell Ellis in 2018. The Bears went 7-4 in the new Southwest Conference and won five of their last six games. That gave the program its third straight year with at least six victories.
The Bears also moved up to Class 2 and notched a win over Butler in their district opener before ending their season against Lamar. Ellis and others are choosing to focus on the positives of that experience.
“We ended last year with what I consider a program win despite it being an overall loss,” he said. “We’re very optimistic heading into this year. We have a big senior class that has been right there for the conference championship.”
Sarcoxie brings back 12 seniors and six starters on each side of the ball, including six of its 10 All-Conference selections. The strength will be the experience at skill positions, starting with senior quarterback Haydon Kisling. He showed steady improvement throughout the season after replacing All-State signal caller Chris Comerford. He carried the ball 94 times for 602 yards and four touchdowns while throwing for 749 yards and another five scores.
He will be joined in the backfield by junior Justin Mandera, who returns as the second leading rusher from 2018 with 459 yards and six touchdowns. Senior Gage Weist will also be a big contributor, while Junior Christian Harder and sophomore Drake Acheson will get touches as well.
Ellis, now in his fifth year at Sarcoxie, is eager to see how familiarity will help the offense come out of the gate hot.
“The kids know what we expect. They know the ‘why’ of our offense. We replace three starters from last year’s offensive line, so that’ll just take time, but our skill kids are in a position where they understand enough that we can check in and out of things if need be.”
Senior Nate Baldwin returns to lead the effort in the trenches following an All-Southwest First Team selection on both the offensive and defensive lines. The state discus champion clocked in with 69 tackles last fall, good for second on the team.
Fellow senior Kendrick Bass took that top honor with 83 and will reprise his role at linebacker along with Weist.
The secondary will be the most experienced unit with every starter returning. Kisling will join Cristian Velasquez and Blake Ogle after the trio combined for six interceptions in 2018.
The biggest point of pride for Ellis is the fight his team showed in the face of a new conference and postseason opponents. That, mixed with another year of experience and a talented group of upperclassmen has Sarcoxie thinking contention once again.
“We went up a class and these kids gave it all they have,” he said. “If we can battle the likes of Lamar in the playoffs, that gives us a chance to really say that we’re really not afraid of anyone. That is what we’ll take into this season.”