By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The COC is the area’s best football conference. Here are 10 things to watch in the COC this season.
Webb City is still Webb City
Yes, Webb City is coming off a rare home playoff loss and yes, the Cardinals lost All-Everything studs Alex Gaskill (Pitt State) and Durand Henderson (Northwest Missouri State) but this will be a typical reload for John Roderique and company. Webb has one of the area’s top athletes in Arkansas-Fort Smith commit (basketball) Terrell Kabala. He shifts to running back, alongside junior Devrin Weathers, giving Roderique his most explosive running back tandem in nearly a decade. Seniors Ruben Lenker and Braydon Bond, along with monster Trenton Thompson, will help solidify a defense that will have some growing pains with so many new faces. There will be holes and question marks all over the field, but the key to Webb City this year will be the junior class. It could be one of Roderique’s deepest in terms of high-level talent when all is said and done. Zetthew Meister and Grant Goltra have D-1 potential on the offensive line. Classmates Gary Clinton and Jaystin Smith, who missed all of 2018 with a torn ACL, are also extremely talented players. Sophomore Cohl Vaden had some positive moments on both sides of the ball in the jamboree. The Cardinals will be young, but this team is more than capable of bringing home the program’s 15th state championship.
Is this the year Carthage gets over the hump?
All signs point to yes. This might be John Guidie’s most talented and nastiest team ever. Having an elite quarterback in the form of junior Pat Carlton (1,115 passing yards, 1,354 rushing yards, 35 total TDs) helps. Only injuries kept senior running back Tyler Mueller (987 rushing yards, 15 TDs) from a 1,000-yard season last year and seniors Oscar Campa and Brener Ocana will anchor a line that averages nearly 275lbs. Classmates Alex Martini, Kale Schrader and the Kendrick twins give the Tigers a disgustingly good defense. They allowed 13.8 PPG over the final two months of the season, helping them to yet another Class 5 Final Four. This year’s picture is even more favorable with Carthage seemingly having an easier route to the Final Four. But first, the Tigers are staring at Webb City and Joplin in hopes of snagging bragging rights in the COC. One name that could be huge for Carthage is senior Marcus Huntley. Over the last two years, the offense has had to adjust to the graduation of Arkell Smith and Jayden Morgan. If Huntley can emerge as a playmaker on the perimeter, the Tigers will again be able to stretch people horizontally and vertically.
Joplin ready for Round 2?
Joplin’s first run in the COC saw a 1-2 start be followed up by a nine-game winning streak before losing to eventual Class 6 state champion CBC. The Eagles have the area’s best “Big Three” in quarterback Blake Tash (1,732 passing yards, 16 TD, running back Isaiah Davis (1,676 rushing yards, 28 TDs) and receiver Zach Westmoreland (2,132 all-purpose yards, 28 total TDs, 7 INT). They lose the entire offensive line that helped make them so successful last year, but ultimately these three are among the best at what they do in Missouri. Joplin is explosively offensively, but something lost in last season’s success was just how good the Eagles were defensively. During that nine-game winning streak they allowed just 10.1 PPG. Many of those same faces are back with seniors Eli Eminger, Holden Ledford and Simeon Barba, as well as Westmoreland, guiding that unit. How Joplin adjusts upfront will likely decide its season. For the Class of 2020, they’ve been the best collective athletic class in the area with success across the three major sports. But that hasn’t included a conference championship against the likes of Webb City, Carthage, Carl Junction and Neosho. With bragging rights at stake, the Eagles are hopeful to go out with a bang before jumping into the playoffs.
Is Neosho for real?
Speaking of Neosho, no one was more surprising than the Cats last year. Keep in mind, they went 2-9 in 2017 and back in 2012-13, had back-to-back winless seasons. Last year’s 8-4 campaign and district runner-up finish was huge for the program. They’re physical and establish the run, a staple of Leon Miller’s brand of football. Having Gage Kelley back will be huge for the offseason. With seniors Sam Cook and Quincey Willis leading the defense, Neosho will again be athletic on that side of the ball. It’ll be tough to replace Tre Letts, but this group figured out how to win last fall, it’ll be interesting to see how they respond now that there are expectations surrounding the program.
Can Carl Junction bounce back?
For the first time at Carl Junction, Doug Buckmaster had a sub.500 season. Injuries were the theme of last year and that seemingly will become a two-year theme with stud junior quarterback Alex Baker breaking his ankle in July. So, the Bulldogs will have a different look. All-state senior Teagen Armentrout will be a two-way stud and sophomore Cole Stewart will see plenty of targets in the passing game. Junior Brady Sims has been a standout running back since junior high, it’ll be interesting to see how he looks in more of a feature role. One thing to keep an eye on is the impact made by Dylan and Jacob Sims. They are the sons of Missouri Southern coach Jeff Sims and could provide an instant boost. With Lebanon and Willard joining the district, as well as Camdenton and Neosho remaining down from Class 5, the Bulldogs could have their hands full again in districts as well.
What to make of the Springfield area schools?
Recently, the theory that Springfield is better at basketball and Joplin is better in football has been true. Last year, Ozark beating CJ at home was the lone occurrence of a Joplin-area team losing a conference game to a Springfield-area school in COC play. Nixa, Ozark, Republic and Willard are some of the best basketball programs in Missouri. They all have experienced coaches that have won at high levels, especially over the last half decade or so. Willard, with Coach Brock Roweton return nearly two dozen seniors with loads of experience and Republic, with Coach Dustin Baldwin having guys that are comfortable in his system, should both see win increases.
Year of the Quarterback?
Carthage junior Pat Carlton is the biggest name one of the top junior quarterbacks in Missouri. Last year he put up crazy numbers, playing in just nine games as the starting quarterback. Having a year of experience with weapons around him and a veteran line in front of him could make 2019 scary for the rest of the COC. He’s the favorite for COC Offensive Player of the Year entering the season… Joplin senior Blake Tash is the biggest name returning and no one has started more games under center than him. He’s passed for nearly 4,000 yards in his career, but the crazy part is that he has a career completion percentage of 72% and has thrown just 10 interceptions. Being efficient is his game and the reason Joplin has been so successful… Willard senior Reece Dawson is name to watch. He’s 6-foot-4 and a legit dual-threat guy after passing for 939 yards and rushing for 473 more. He gets the ball out quick and has some arm strength. He has some weapons back and he’s a confident, experienced quarterback with a great command of the offense. He’s good enough to help Willard to a big 2019 season and colleges have taken notice. He has as much potential as any SWMO quarterback… Republic senior Lucas Hayes is the latest Dustin Baldwin quarterback that will see a huge jump as a senior. Baldwin does a tremendous job of tailoring his offense to personnel. Hayes will again have a chance to throw it around the yard. Having a consistent running game and an experienced offensive line will allow him to thrive this fall. He passed for 1,045 and 12 touchdowns as a junior. Carl Junction junior Alex Baker is hurt and it’s unknown if he’ll play at all this season but understand he’s as talented as they come. Buckmaster hasn’t been shying in letting people know that Baker had varsity ability as a freshman, the Bulldogs were just set at quarterback. Baker has a big frame and monster arm, but he’s also very mobile. Whenever he returns, he’ll immediately challenge for the title of top QB in the Ozarks.
Who will win the rushing title?
1. Isaiah Davis, Joplin – Davis is the easy option because of his monster junior season. He’s also a workhorse back that can easily handle 25-30 carries. Curtis Jasper also doesn’t mind riding the Zay Train.
2. Devrin Weathers, Webb City – Rushed for 987 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore. Injuries limited the end of his season. Will likely be the feature back for Webb City and one of the top athletes in Southwest Missouri.
3. Terrell Kabala, Webb City – Kabala hasn’t played running back since junior high, but he was pretty good back then. Fast forward to the now and the 6-1, 205-pound monster is shifting back to the backfield where his dynamic ability will make him a touchdown threat on every touch.
4. Tyler Mueller, Carthage – As a junior he stole the show because of how hard he runs. Mueller bounces off defenders and runs through arm tackles. He added strength and mass in the offseason, which should make him even more unstoppable.
5. Riley Sigman, Republic – He rushed for 750 yards and six touchdowns as a junior, but the Tigers return enough beef up front for Sigman to have a huge season.
6. Gage Kelley, Neosho – Kelley was an awesome quarterback last year. He’ll transition to running back and be the feature guy this fall, where he’ll likely get 20+ touches per game. With how hard he runs, it would be a shock if he wasn’t a 1,000-yard guy.
Westmoreland is a threat to take home COC Offensive & Defensive POY honors; he’s that dynamic. If he hits 3,000 all-purpose yards and can recapture the defensive season he had a year ago, he could generate some buzz for Gatorade POY in Missouri. As a junior his yardage breakdown was 959 receiving, 819 return and 354 rushing yards. Westmoreland could be looking at 1,500-1,000-500. Lofty numbers, but he should get the touches and play enough games to make it possible.
Defensive POY will come down to five names…
1. Zach Westmoreland, Joplin – He had seven interceptions a year ago and changed the way Joplin played defensively because of how good he was in the secondary. His ability in the return game also adds to his impact defensively.
2. Ruben Lenker, Webb City – He was selected to the Blue-Gray All-American game after leading Webb City in tackles as a junior. He’s another tough, gritty WC linebacker that is excellent in the box.
3. Trenton Thompson, Webb City – He’s a high-motor defensive lineman that has the versatility to lineup anywhere across the front. His position makes it difficult to win the honor, but he’s impactful enough to join Forrest Merrill as the only primary DL to win the award over the last decade.
4. Alex Martini, Carthage – Speaking of defensive linemen, at 6-foot-8, Martini is one of the state’s biggest defensive ends. His length and athleticism make him a handful to contain. He’s developed himself into a D1 prospect. Running away from him might be the only option.
5. Sam Cook, Neosho – He’s one of my favorite players in Southwest Missouri. At 6-foot-6, his length and frame also make him a pest defensively. He plays with a high motor and continues to grow as a player, which has drawn D1 interest.