2020 Big 8 Conference Football Preview

By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)

Few things are better than Big 8 football. And, for as much as we talk about the dominance of the COC in large classes, Cassville played for a state title last year, Mount Vernon was dominant in Class 3 as well and Lamar is still the gold standard for Class 2 football. There isn’t a better small-class football league in Missouri. And, with the eastern programs rapidly improving, as well as the resurgence of Monett we will see this fall, things will be absolutely crazy throughout the regular season and into district play where we will again see several rematches. Here’s what you need to know about the Big 8 this fall.

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• Mt. Vernon and Cassville are still loaded
Mt. Vernon and Cassville have represented the Big 8 in two of the past three Class 3 state title games, and despite massive graduation losses, both programs will return enough firepower to again compete for conference, district and potentially state championships. Mt. Vernon has won district championships in two of the last three years and have put together three straight double-digit win seasons. Last year their season was ended prematurely in a 14-12 upset at the hands of Seneca. With 14 starters back, including stud receiver Rafe Darter, as well as defensive standouts Justin Moore and Dominic Dawson, the ‘Neers have some horses back in the stable. Mason Ballay will slide in at quarterback and return to the defensive secondary. One of the biggest question marks for Tom Cox this year will be how his team responds to adversity. Last year MV was 4-1 in games decided by single digits. In 2018 they were 3-1. Few teams have been as resilient as Mount Vernon, but can that be sustained with a new cast? If so, this could be another special group… Cassville must replace some massive names with guys like Bowen Preddy, DJ White and Deven Bates gone. And while the offense may look different, this will be another great group defensively. Senior Zach Coenen is an all-state linebacker and classmate Jericho Farris was a stud defensive back. Both will also see increased carries offensively. Senior Jaiden Reibert leads an experienced offensive line. This is a group that advanced all the way to the Class 3 state championship game and knows exactly what it takes to make a deep playoff run. The schedule does them no favors, as they open with a trip to Mount Vernon and have a stretch of Fridays where they’ll see Lamar, Monett and Seneca. Their record may not be as gaudy come November, but this team is as equipped as any to be the next Big 8 state champion.

• A New Regime at Lamar
Jared Beshore takes over at Lamar following a successful playing career as a Tiger and then at Missouri State. He also has to fill the shoes of legendary head coach Scott Bailey, as the program looks for its 11th straight double-digit win season and district championship. Beshore likely won’t change too much schematically. This year, Lamar is again talented enough to make a run in Class 2. Senior Case Tucker and sophomore Austin Wilkerson will be two of the best two-way players in the Ozarks. Lamar is loaded defensively with juniors Robert Lawrence and Trace Willhite back. The biggest question will be on the offensive line. Ben Wilhelm is the only returning starter. If the unit can galvanize and acclimate quickly, Lamar will again be the team to beat in the Big 8. Speaking of brutal schedules… Sep. 25 at Cassville, Oct. 2 at Mount Vernon, Oct. 9 hosting Monett and Oct. 16 at Seneca. That stretch will help decide the West title.

• Monett Back in Business
Monett won a state title in 2016, since then the Cubs have gone 15-16. That’s fine, because this is the reload year that Coach Uhl has been building towards. Last year Monett went 8-3, with those losses coming to Mount Vernon (22-21), Cassville (21-14) and Cassville again (19-6). This was one of the top Class 3 teams in Missouri last season. This is another program that lost some all-time greats, with Wes Merriman and Junior Villa graduating. With that being said, enough experience returning up front and the transition of dynamic athlete Ethan Umfleet to quarterback will be enough to help keep Monett afloat offensively. Defensively Ray Villalta leads a unit that allowed just 13.2 PPG. They may be even better this year. Monett will likely start the season 5-0 going into the tough part of the schedule, finishing the season with Cassville, Lamar, Catholic and Seneca. Regardless of their regular season record, buy stock now; this is a team built to make a run.

• Which Seneca Will We See?
Seneca has traded off seasons the last four years, with great years being followed by sub. 500 seasons. The Indians went 8-4 last year, falling to Cassville in the district championship (30-20). On paper, it’s easy to assume they’ll take a step back. Big 8 Offensive POY Trey Wilson and Daythen Long are gone. Buuuut, Ryan McFarland has his entire offensive line back, a stud quarterback in Lance Stephens and one of the biggest sleepers in the league, junior Jaxon Graham. The most important part is the defensive growth. Seneca allowed 23 PPG last year and has allowed 31 PPG or more in four of the last six seasons. Zane Cotton and Nick Arrasmith will have this unit ready to go. I wouldn’t be shocked if Seneca is undefeated entering an October stretch that is at Cassville, hosting Lamar and at Monett. They’d then have to turn around and likely see some combination of Cassville and Monett in districts.

• Legend Takes Over at Catholic
Springfield Catholic goes from one coaching legend to another, with Steve Hancock stepping down to allow Richard Rehagen – Nixa’s all-time winningest coach – to take over the Irish. Few staffs in Missouri have as much coaching firepower with Catholic also having Bobby Cornelison, Sam Wutke and Ozzie Riley on staff. There’s also plenty of talent on the field, with 11 starters returning. That experience includes stud running back Matt Schmittling and classmate quarterback Will Squibb. Rehagen has also been great defensively and developing rushing attacks. This lineup is built to support his brand of football. Rehagen is new to the Big 8, but he’s not new to winning football. He will give the league yet another skilled game planner. Catholic has had four straight winning seasons, including a district title in 2018. This group is good enough to make it five straight.

• 1,000-Yard Backs Everywhere
Last year there were 29 1,000-yard backs in the Ozarks and seven of them came from the Big 8. Matt Schmittling (Catholic), Case Tucker (Lamar) and Colton Cramblett (Reeds Spring) are back. Don’t be shocked to see Zach Coenen (Cassville), Ethan Umfleet (Monett), Daylon Kanengieter (Marshfield), Austin Wilkerson (Lamar), Kelby Gard (Hollister) and Jaxon Graham (Seneca) join them. The Big 8 will have double-digit 1,000-yard backs this season.

• Best of the Rest
You can’t talk about the Big 8 without mentioning the job Kyle Wood did in his first year at East Newton. The Patriots not only snapped a two-plus year losing streak, but also won their first district game in more than a decade. What he did is the epitome of what it takes to change the culture of a program. The Patriots have a ton of experience to replace and will fight that battle of experience throughout the season, but Wood proved he’s up to the challenge of competing in the Big 8… Cody Bull has Marshfield rolling after back-to-back winning seasons. The Jays lose the Espy twins, but Daylon Kanengieter will be a threat to lead the league in rushing, especially running behind a massive offensive line. Marshfield is a legitimate threat to make a run in the East… Reeds Spring has a new head coach with Andy McFarland taking over after serving as head coach at Forsyth. The Wolves have been .500 or better in every season since 2012. Having a stud running back like Colton Cramblett is a great start, but his role will look a little different as Reeds adjusts to a spread offense from its previous triple option. A name to keep an eye on here is Caden Wiest. He was a stud defensive end as a freshman. His ability to set an edge and make plays is scary. His physicality was also rare for someone his age playing in the Big 8. Big-time potential for Wiest. Mt. Vernon has owned the East, it’ll be interesting to see if Reeds can continue to compete at the top of the league following a coaching change… Mark Talbert will have one of his most talented teams in his three seasons at Rogersville. He has two quarterbacks in Zach Bergmann and JJ O’Neal that can make plays under center or in space. They return a nearly fully intact offensive line and more time to absorb Talbert’s system. Trystin Voss will have a coming out party in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Log-Rog hasn’t been over .500 since winning state back in 2011. Dylan Cole was in uniform back then. Last year’s offense was the program’s best since 2012. The Cats played great football in the playoffs, including an upset of Catholic. That momentum will carry over into 2020.

• Award Candidates

Offensive POY Candidates
1. Senior RB Case Tucker, Lamar
2. Junior QB Ethan Umfleet, Monett
3. Senior RB Matthew Schmittling, Catholic
4. Senior QB Lance Stephens, Seneca
5. Senior WR Rafe Darter, Mount Vernon
6. Senior RB Daylon Kanengieter, Marshfield
7. Senior RB Kelby Gard, Hollister

Defensive POY Candidates
1. Senior DL Ray Villalta, Monett
2. Senior LB Zach Coenen, Cassville
3. Senior LB Justin Moore, Mount Vernon
4. Junior LB Robert Lawrence, Lamar
5. Sophomore DB Austin Wilkerson, Lamar
6. Senior LB Colton Cramblett, Reeds Spring
7. Senior DL Trystin Voss, Rogersville

Breakout POY Candidates
1. Senior Kaden Denney, Nevada
2. Sophomore DE Caden Wiest, Reeds Spring
3. Junior QB Cole Martin, McDonald County
4. Junior ATH Jaxon Graham, Seneca
5. Sophomore OL/DL Mason Hailey, East Newton
6. Junior RB Kohl Rohlman, Aurora
7. Junior OL/DL AJ Narvaez, Hollister