By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mountain Grove faced a gauntlet schedule last fall, matching up with Class 2 state runner-up Ava twice, a 10-win Fair Grove team, and an 11-win Thayer team.
As such, the young Panthers did not find the win column for the first time in many years. Now, the Panthers have eight starters back on each side to build themselves into an SCA contender once again. Brandon Rodgers can already see a difference in workouts as he enters his third year at head coach.
“Their confidence level is much different. These guys were starting from scratch out of necessity last year,” he said. “Now there is more competition and I think they will play older than they are.”
Senior Alex Casas and junior Brendan Rodgers return as upperclassmen who lead by example. Both finished the 2019 season with postseason honors and are the top returning tacklers on this year’s defense. Rogers, who earned an Honorable Mention at linebacker, finished with 69 tackles, one sack, and one interception as a sophomore, while Cases added 54 tackles, an interception, and two fumble recoveries to earn a second-team nod at defensive back.
Both players will also contribute to a running back platoon that returns each member from 2019 return. Hollen Glen led the team in rushing last year as a freshman and will be joined once again by junior Trenton Bevan as a primary ball carrier.
“When your leading rusher is a freshman, it usually means good things for the future,” said Rodgers. “The guys around him, Rogers and Bevin, have experience and are only juniors. It’s just nice to have a little more age on them.”
Jase Dowden returns to tight end after an All-SCA campaign as a junior. He was the top pass catcher from 2019 with 274 yards through the air.
As far as who will toss those passes this fall, sophomore Tyson Elliott got some varsity work last year. He amassed 344 yards through the air and did plenty with his feet. After the graduation of Rhett Wakefield, Elliott is battling for snaps with freshman Bradley Henry this summer.
“(Elliot) started the last game of the year for us against Ava. We wanted to get a feel for how he would handle that role,” said Rodgers. “He brings a lot of leadership and is a hard worker with talent.”
Anthony Peterson (All-SCA Honorable Mention) and Jaxon Holman bring experience to the offensive line as seniors. The Panthers are excited to have Holman back at full strength after he missed part of last season due to injury. Hunter Means is also back in the trenches after earning an All-SCA Honorable Mention as a freshman.
Means is also expected to increase his production on the defensive line after notching 50 tackles and a sack in 2019. Senior Tyron Volner and sophomore Jakob Norman will join him in the unit.
Seniors Jacob Pitt and Xander Goins are also back for their senior campaigns at linebacker alongside Bevan.
“We return three starters in the secondary, two starters on the defensive line, and a couple of linebackers. That experience is definitely going to help us.”
Overall, Rodgers expects the reps against tough conference opponents will result in a stronger Mountain Grove team in 2020.
“If things work out and we get the chance to play, I think we will be competitive.”
The Panthers are scheduled to open the season on Aug. 28 against Fair Grove.