Ava claimed its first outright, unshared SCA championship since 198 last season by going 7-0 in the conference and 9-0 in the regular season. The Bears won the Class 2 District 4 championship before falling to eventual Class 2 state champion Lamar in the state quarterfinals by a 28-22 margin.
The Bears will take lessons from going toe-to-toe with the seven-time defending state champion Tigers.
“We know what state championship football looks like. How it feels, and how they act. What Lamar did was give us a bar that says ‘this is the level we have to play at’. If you want to be good and make a run at the end of the year, you have to play like that,” Ava head coach Dan Swofford said.
Three second-team all-state players graduated from that team including: Quincey McDonald (defensive back), Bailey Bewley (defensive line) and Dalton Curtis (offensive line). McDonald was also the team’s No. 2 rusher with 1,089 yards and 15 touchdowns on 173 carries.
The cupboard is far from bare for Ava, and it starts with four-year starting quarterback Caleb Johnson returning for his senior season.
Johnson completed 28 passes for 678 yards and 11 touchdowns last year while rushing for 561 yards and eight touchdowns on his way to first-team all-conference honors.
“He understands exactly what he needs to do. There is nothing out there that he hasn’t seen,” Swofford said. “We ask a lot of our quarterbacks, (so) we need him to bring an attitude just like it is his first year. His leadership will be beneficial to what we do.”
Speedy senior running back Stephen Copeland returns after rushing for a team-high 1,106 yards and 13 touchdowns on 104 carries. He also was second on the team with eight catches for 200 yards and three touchdowns, which is 25 yards-per-catch. Copeland was a part of Ava’s all-state 400- and 800-meter relay teams this past spring.
“(Copeland is) probably one of the most dangerous guys when he gets the ball in his hands as far as small schools go in the area. If he gets a seam, he is gone,” Swofford said. “It takes more than his running ability. He also has be a great blocker this year.”
Nate Swofford will play some wide receiver in his junior year while also being the backup quarterback.
The offensive line has some questions right now but senior Iveck Chittenden and junior Cody Prock look to be contributors on that unit.
Junior Kayden Myers will be key to the Bears’ success this season after a breakout sophomore year that saw him earn second-team all-state honors at linebacker. He will also take over the fullback duties vacated by McDonald’s graduation.
“We are hoping he (Myers) is going to bring that same influence he had at linebacker to that fullback spot,” Swofford said. “He did a great job last year. He came at times when Quincey got banged up a little bit and did a wonderful job. We are excited to see what he can do.”
Myers led the team with 141 total tackles last year. He rushed for 392 yards and eight touchdowns on 52 carries in a limited offensive role.
“He (Myers) got bigger, better and he got more confidence. I was amazed at some of the stuff he did (last year),” Swofford said. “At the end of the year against Strafford he had 27 tackles. I couldn’t believe the things he was doing and the numbers he was putting up throughout the year.”
The defense should be strong overall. Josh Bray, Dillon King and Waylin Moon will join Myers at linebacker. Bray was third on the team with 82 total tackles while Moon pulled down 26 tackles.
Swofford thinks Moon can be a breakout player for Ava in his senior season.
“He (Moon) has worked hard and is going to be a playmaker,” Swofford said. “Mostly not because of his great athletic ability, but because of his great attitude and wiliness to come up through the system and play JV ball as a junior and be a sub on Friday nights.”
Johnson will go both ways and play defensive end. He was a menace for opposing backfields after he pulled down a team-high 13 sacks to go with 57 total tackles.
The Bears will have to rebuild in the secondary a bit.
“The defensive secondary we had last year had been together for the last two or three years and played since they were young guys,” Swofford said. “The peaked in their senior year which is where you want them to peak at.”
Copeland is the defensive back returning with the most experience. Nate Swofford will also slot in at defensive back.
Swofford will look to junior varsity players that have bided their time to fill in holes on the varsity level this season.
“I have had some kids the last few years that weren’t getting the time on the varsity side that they would have liked, but they had great attitudes, played JV football and worked their way up in the system,” Swofford said.
Swofford has a few simple things he would like to see his team do in order to have a successful season.
“The biggest things are: can we stay healthy? Can we establish our run game? Can we avoid turnovers?” Swofford said. “That (avoiding turnovers) is pretty important for a triple option team. You have to able to hang onto the ball and keep working and not beat yourself. That staying healthy part is very important too. You can be small and not be very big, but if you keep your good players going throughout the year then you have a chance to do some nice things.”
The Bears will lean on two consistent things: hard work and a good attitude.
“If you just work hard and have a good attitude throughout the year then your success level will probably be good if you have athletes that are competitive with other athletes on the field,” Swofford said. “If we matchup physically with people then I think our attitude and hard work will carry us to wins.”
Ava opens the season on Aug. 24 at Buffalo.