By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Ash Grove will trek into its first season in the newly-formed Southwest Conference with as many question marks as any team in the area.
Only two starters remain on each side of the ball: senior linemen Deaven Phipps and Miles Nentrup. Every other starter from a season ago was a senior. That means 99.97 percent of the offensive production is out the door.
One of the only mainstays is fourth-year head coach Ryan Long, who is ready mold this new squad.
“There has obviously been a ton of install,” he said. “No one really saw the field last year, so it’s almost like everyone is learning a new system.”
The Pirates completed their time in the Mid-Lakes Conference with 15 wins in two seasons. Marionville and Pleasant Hope hop from the old league to the Southwest Conference with them. Stockton is also still on the slate, but there are new tests ahead from teams that have enjoyed recent postseason success.
“If Pierce City, Lockwood, or Sarcoxie were in the Mid-Lakes last year, they all would’ve finished near the top of our conference. We’re excited about being able to see new systems.”
Beyond Phipps and Nentrup, juniors Hunter Wheeler and Wyatt Stubblefield also split starts on the offensive line last season. It’s safe to say that the trenches are least of the Pirates’ concerns, not just in experience, but actual size.
“We have five kids on the line that weigh over 220 pounds, so that’ll be good for us,” said Long. “On the other hand, we don’t have a lot of kids that weigh between 150 and 220. We’re trying to figure out where to put these kids and not stick a freshman in a position too early.”
Junior Alex Squibb is the only skill position player that made it into the stat book in 2017 as he rushed for 20 yards and one touchdown. He’ll perform fullback duties along with Jake Thompson, while junior Jonas Adams slots in at tailback. Fellow classmate Noah Baker also expects to receive touches.
Cole Steely represents one of five seniors on the team and will take over at quarterback. He mostly has junior varsity experience but has progressed well throughout the summer as he learns Long’s veer/midline option offense.
Sophomore Brecken Schindler is a frontrunner to be one of his main targets.
Defense, however, has been the calling card for Ash Grove over the last two years. The Pirates posted three shutouts and gave up no more than a touchdown on three other occasions. In 2017, they still managed to hold opponents to 20 points or fewer seven times.
Now, Phipps, Nentrup, Wheeler, and Stubblefield will set the tone for the defense up front. Thompson will double up duties at linebacker while Adams and Baker do the same in the secondary.
This fall is the closest thing to a clean slate, which means there is no shortage of players that have witnessed success and are hungry for their own opportunities. For Long, if the Pirates can nail down execution quickly, then identity will soon follow.
“We still have to figure out what we have,” he said. “(Adams) is a hard runner and we’re a little undersized at fullback, but we’re confident in (Thompson) and (Squibb). The big thing will be us communicating in the backfield and shoring things up with handoffs. We’re still working with (Steely) to understand defenses better and find those hole in the passing game so we can have success.”