By Tyler Thompson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
WILLARD — Willard senior bell cow Garrett Rice was concerned heading into his Tigers’ Week 2 matchup against the 1-0 Ozark Tigers.
Rice’s questions were understandable, after all, he missed last week’s season opener at Joplin due to illness.
An illness that caused the senior to drop 20 pounds in three days.
How would his conditioning hold up for the duration?
He’s durable, which is evident by his baseball commitment to Mizzou.
For the packed house Friday at Willard, fans saw that Rice didn’t miss a beat, as he ran wild over the Ozark defense in the host’s 40-3 win — pushing Willard to 1-1 on the young fall campaign.
“It was awesome. We got a packed house. First home game and it is against Ozark. Can’t get any better than this,” Rice said, grinning from ear to ear.
A four-year player for the Tigers, Rice, obviously, was itching to get back on his home turf.
“Really excited; [quarterback] Reece Dawson and me were talking, and it had been a year since I had contact. I’ve just been ready to go out and play. Ready to get back with them. I just had to push it in conditioning.”
Rice amassed 100 all-purpose yards and two scores (3-yard run, 40-yard reception) by halftime, and finished with 120 total yards.
While Rice and Dawson (responsible for three scores) illuminated the grass with their bruising and deceptive style, the win truly began up front in the trenches, as the Willard offensive unit served as tone-setters for the game.
Of course, when Carson Gehring stands 6’0” and 300 pounds, and Dennis Trif towers in at 6’3, 315 pounds, and Dawson Merill comes in at 6’1, 275 pounds, the trenches will be a bit deeper with their commanding presence.
Said Rice: “Our offensive line is awesome. This was all them. When you have gaps like that, they were pushing them [defense] back three yards. This game wasn’t like this if it hadn’t been for our line.”
Dawson also benefitted from added time in the pocket, while he consistently eyed his playmakers downfield: junior Ethan Thompson (116 all-purpose yards) and Maurice Grayer (45-yard reception) and Eli Aye (31-yard touchdown reception).
Added Rice: “It is really nice. When we get Marshall Swadley (inactive for Week 2), it’ll be even better. We have speed. We just have so many weapons, and it is really nice to have.”
Dawson kept the chains moving, using his elusiveness to juke defenders while using patience and overall field vision to make his cuts out wide and up the interior.
“This was Willard versus Ozark,” Dawson said. “For 22 years, they would just whoop up on us. But these past six years, we have been playing them close. I knew this was going to be an awesome crowd, and they just fueled our fire.”
Dawson was 5-for-6 for 211 yards, one interception and three touchdowns.
Not a bad way to open up the home slate of the schedule.
The senior signal caller was champing at the bit to address his runaway train in the backfield after the game.
“I don’t know what we would have done if he actually … he actually wasn’t going to play at the beginning of the year,” Dawson said of Rice. “He changed the whole game. He did great. It opens up everything. It opens up the passing game.”
Offense and defense and even special teams had a hand in the win, as junior Evan Hancock took the late fourth-quarter kickoff the distance for six.
Needless to say, it was the complete-game performance in which the Tigers were hoping.
Now, they just have to wait a week before they can build upon such a rousing performance.
Willard travels to Nixa (0-2) next week.
Nixa fell to the 1-1 Republic Tigers, 25-14.