By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com) – @thejordanburton
Last season was yet another familiar ending for the Lamar Tigers as Class 2 state champions.
The Tigers have now won seven straight state football titles, something that is about as rare as finding a single coach to resurrect a struggling program and build it into one of the nation’s most successful units for the better part of a decade.
But, as Lamar prepares to seek an eighth consecutive state championship, the motivation for legendary coach Scott Bailey focuses far less on the goal of playing in November and more on an incremental approach that allows teams’ to gauge their success against others.
“We don’t really look at the season as a whole to try to motivate our kids; it’s too long and too big,” Bailey said. “It’s too long and too big for me to look at it as a whole and get motivated. If I look at the entire thing, I normally get a sense of dread.
“We normally just compare where we are at currently with the previous teams. We have pictures of each senior class that has won a state championship in football in the weight room, so we do spend some time talking about the strengths and weaknesses of each group of seniors and how our current seniors measure up.”
While Bailey and Lamar must replace 14 starters – a task that seems daunting on paper – the cupboard is far from bare. The Tigers have grown accustomed to reloads and not rebuilds.
That secret to success has allowed Bailey to help fill seemingly gaping voids left by Division-I players, which will be the case with standouts Cooper Lucas and T.W. Ayers, both heading to Football Bowl Subdivision school, Arkansas State.
The names this season may be new to some, but that doesn’t mean a lack of talent or Friday-night experience.
“We have had our share of three-year starters and even a few four-year starters, but we have also had a high percentage of players that stayed in our program and worked while they waited on their time to come; which might not be until their senior year,” Bailey said. “Those two things combined have helped us create depth at every position. The kids didn’t give up on us and they didn’t stay in the program as dead weight either. They stayed and worked and waited and when they got their opportunity, they made the most of it.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Lamar’s unique offense starts with its two-quarterback system. Those two spots will be manned by some combination of senior Duncan Gepner, junior Donte Stahl and sophomore Case Tucker.
Gepner rushed for 715 yards and had nine total touchdowns last season. Stahl stepped in late due to injury, racking up 383 yards and four scores. Tucker is the younger brother of former Lamar quarterback Tripp Tucker, who was one of the most productive players to play the position for Bailey.
Anchoring the offensive line will be all-state senior Caleb Gouge. He’ll be joined by classmates and part-time starters CJ Maldonado and Wilson Miller. Senior All-Area tight end BJ Gammon also returns.
Senior Trevor Medlin will be one of the biggest beneficiaries from an experienced and large line. Medlin returns after rushing for 151 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last year’s state championship game.
“We graduated a large part of our offensive production at the skill positions and over half our starters up front,” Bailey said. “We have a solid nucleus of players coming back at both position groups, but need for our part-time starters and our younger players to quickly prove they can play at the varsity level in the Big 8 and in Class 2, especially on the offensive line. While our offense works to get that varsity level experience, our defense and our special teams will need to carry us.”
Defensively, Lamar brings back several key pieces from a defense that allowed just seven points per game, headlined by two-time all-state senior linebacker Travis Bailey.
Bailey led the Tigers with 111 tackles last season, the second-consecutive year that he’s led the team in tackles.
“Travis has increased his leadership role on our team, as have all our seniors really,” Bailey said. “We have 16 on our roster and everyone has worked himself into a position to play varsity football and everyone has taken on a larger leadership role.”
He’ll be joined by classmate and all-state defensive back Landon Hardman. Hardman had a team-high 12 pass breakups in 2017 to go along with 46 tackles and three interceptions.
Seniors Isaac Collins (73 tackles), Dylan Hill (54 tackles) and Chase Davey (54 tackles) also will return to the defensive secondary.
Senior Mike Henderson also is sliding back in his linebacker spot from 2017 and junior JD Bishop will be another impact player on that side of the ball after racking up 63 tackles and three interceptions last season.
“We return starters at every linebacker position and in the secondary but graduated all our defensive linemen,” Bailey said. “Same as with our offense, it will be critical that our part-time starters and our younger players on our defensive line – who we believe can play varsity-level football in the Big 8 and in Class 2 – prove us correct. While our defensive line works to get that varsity-level experience, our linebackers and secondary will need to carry our defense.”
Bailey has several newcomers he is excited about.
Seniors Alex Burgess and Blake Felts, juniors George Webber and Connor O’Neal, and sophomore Rylan Woolridge provide offensive line depth. Seniors Daniel Contraras and Cage Jordan, as well as junior Branson Seaton, also could see carries or a role on defense.
Juniors Stephen Davis, Justin Walker, Morgan Davis, Carlos Paiz and sophomore Draden Willhite all will compete for roles on the defensive line.
Juniors Wyatt Hull, Sam Mather, Payton Moenning and sophomore Cade Griffith also will see varsity reps.
The Big 8 Conference will look a little different with the addition of nearly the entire Central Ozark Conference Small division, plus Nevada; something that will restart the Silver Tiger game between Lamar and Nevada, which Bailey mentioned as a good thing about the conference realignment.
But ultimately, Lamar continues to face the question of when will the streak end.
The Tigers haven’t lost a game since 2014, a winning streak that now is at 49 games. They haven’t lost to a Class 2 team since 2010. Their dominance has reached epic levels, not just in Missouri, but on a national scale.
Bailey understands the history of Missouri high school football and just what his program has done and continues to do.
But, it’s reaching their full potential that continues to drive him, not chasing records.
“I don’t talk to them in-depth about our winning streak, other than to talk about “what if” more than anything,” Bailey said. “When it comes to the win streak and even the state championships, what if we don’t get the field goal blocked at (Carl Junction) in 2014 or give up the hitch and pitch in 2013. What if we don’t make the plays at the end of the game against Liberty in 2015 to get the win or block the PAT against Lutheran North and it goes to OT?
“Things like that, just trying to get them thinking more about what is possible. Most of those ‘what-if’ situations came down to a single play or only a couple plays, so be prepared for the opportunity. I do talk to them about Coach Adkins and Jeff City and what they accomplished, winning 71 straight with only four classes of football. Also, Coach Ladacour and DeLaSalle and their 151-game win streak.”
Lamar open the 2018 season on Aug. 24 at Rogersville. The Tigers’ home-opener will be the following week against Hollister.