By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Branson is heading into its fourth season under head coach Anthony Hays, and the Pirates are still looking to assert themselves as top contenders in the COC-Large.
The squad went 2-9 last fall, with both wins coming against Republic. Much of that record had to do with the youth that Hays put on the field each week, along with facing a schedule that included three teams (Joplin, Carthage, Webb city) that played for a state championship.
Now, Hays expects those reps and tough matchups to pay dividends.
“We were very young last year. We started a lot of sophomores,” he said. “These kids, they have been baptized by fire. They have competed against the best, and that experience has showed itself during the summer. This will be the most experienced team I’ve had at Branson.”
The “most experienced team” equals 15 returning starters, all of which are now fully ingrained in Hays’ system. They will also have another experienced ear to bend this fall as ex-Springfield Catholic head coach Steve Hancock joins the staff at his former school.
While Branson was forced to cancel their annual 7-on-7 team camp, they did participate in the same event at Parkview in early July. There, Hays began to see how facing strong opponents had molded his players into what they could become in 2020.
“It should translate to cleaner, more disciplined football. We have kids that have shown ability to make plays even when they were younger.”
Both top passers, senior Dalton Muenchau (49 completions, 550 yards, five touchdowns) and junior Tristan Pierce (41 completions, 445 yards, three touchdowns) return to split time at the quarterback spot.
Hays expects both his signal callers to take big steps this year, and that effort will be aided by the top returning receiver, senior Brady Blackwell. He caught 47 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns last year, enough to earn him an All-COC Third Team selection.
“I think (Blackwell) is about to explode onto the scene as one of the best receivers in southwest Missouri,” said Hays. “I truly believe he was last year, but we just struggled to get him the ball at times. He still went out and produced.”
Fellow senior Dom Darnell could also be poised for a breakout campaign at receiver.
Cristian Berumen, an All-COC honoree at punter and inside linebacker, will also be a primary ball carrier after coming up strong for the Pirates late last season. He sits as the top returning rusher with 236 yards and two touchdowns from a year ago. His 109 tackles and five sacks also lead all returning defenders.
The offensive line will be captained by All-COC selection Tyke Wells, another senior. Drew O’Dell, Noah Hertlein, Joe-Don Kirkland, and Kreaton Muenchau will also earn snaps in the trenches.
Branson fielded a bevy of sophomores on defense in 2019, and now, that class is led by the likes of linebacker Colton Cooper, who racked up 92 tackles, two sacks, and an interception.
“The linebacker position is so important in high school football. To have both of those guys back and be as good as they are, they could help elevate the entire defense.”
Remington Collins will anchor the defensive line alongside senior Ethan Stout, while Landan Atwood expects to improve his work in the secondary after being one of those sophomore starters in 2019.
Overall, Hays is eager to get started because of how his players have carried themselves in the offseason.
“I get the biggest sense of familiarity from them now,” he said. “It helps because you’re just perfecting things at this point instead of installing things on a brand new level every day. We have the pieces to be competitive every week. Our kids believe that now. We have been on this journey together and they are excited about it.”
Branson is scheduled to open the season on Aug. 28 against Nixa.