By Jordan Burton
Defending champion Joplin has left the league for the COC, meaning the conference will have a new champion in 2018. Springfield Central will replace the Eagles this fall. The Ozark Conference will have a recurring theme throughout the season and it’ll be parity and instability. Realignment and three new coaches make the OC wide open, here’s what you should know.
Does the OC belong to West Plains?
Steve Ary’s first season at West Plains saw the Zizzers go winless in OC play. But, we are far removed from 2012 and West Plains walks into 2018 as the overwhelming favorite to win the Ozark Conference. Why? Horses. Ary has 16 starters back from last year’s group, led by running back Brayden Lidgard. Classmate and quarterback Connor Rackley (1,272 passing yards, 367 rushing yards, 17 TD) also returns. Both will be lined up behind an offensive line that is anchored by D-1 prospect Jake Swope (Western Illinois, Southern Illinois and SEMO have offered). Defensively, stalwarts Lane Jett (134 tackles, 4 INT) and Ian Ary (134 tackles, 18 TFL) will lead a group that held everyone in check a year ago. With guys like Beau Ary, Kole Taylor and Bryson Collins also back, West Plains could be an elite defensive unit this fall. Having a strong run-game and playing from ahead will make them even more dangerous; they’ll be able to be extremely aggressive. This year will be about getting over the hump. Maybe the biggest news entering this season is West Plains moving to the Bootheel for district play, meaning the Zizzers are set up nicely to make a deep playoff run.
Is Parkview finally ready?
Two years ago Mike Scott claimed Parkview had the future of the Ozark Conference, pointing to guys like Blake Delacruz and Trevor Boice as players that could shift the balance of power. This year might prove him right. Yes, the Vikings will usher in a new regime with Ben Dougherty taking over. And yes, Dougherty is the program’s third coach in as many years and the Vikings won just one game last year. The case doesn’t look overly strong, but Dougherty inherits an offense that put up 30-plus in seven of their 10 games last year. Three of their nine losses were by 11 points or fewer. Delacruz is back (2,136 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 299 carries in 2017) and Boice (1,940 passing yards and 21 touchdowns against 13 interceptions while rushing for 510 yards and seven touchdowns on 137 carries) has matured both mentally and physically. Seniors Jevin Huddleston and Tyrone Newburn are explosive plays waiting to happen and will likely see touches all over the field. Parkview will put up points, the question will be just how much help will the defense provide. If they can come down just a bit from last year’s 51 PPG allowed, the Vikings will be extremely competitive.
What can Rolla do for an encore?
For a bit, I was convinced we were going to get an All-Ozarks Class 4 championship. The Bulldogs were just a couple games away from making that happen after upsetting their way to a district championship. Keep in mind, this is a team that was sub .500 entering the postseason. Jon Franks has plenty of talent entering his third season. Replacing standout quarterback Josh Pritchett is a daunting task, but Rolla isn’t starting over. They won’t be as explosive offensively as last year, but the Bulldogs will boast one of the top secondaries in the Ozarks with Blaize Klossner (96 tackles, 4 INT), Ahmed Boubacar (96 tackles, 2 INT), Eli Young (80 tackles) and Trey Quick (72 tackles). They give Rolla an athletic defensive backfield that allows the front seven to be more aggressive. Senior Josh Morris (137 tackles) and junior Colton Franks (150 tackles) are one of the best linebacker tandems in the league. If Jack Hounsom can settle in at quarterback and Klossner continues to progress as an offensive Swiss Army Knife (103 catches, 1,196 yards, 424 rushing yards, 15 TD) this offense can cause issues. Rolla’s schedule does them no favors as they start at Glendale, vs. West Plains, at Hillcrest and vs. Parkview. We’ll know early on just how special this group is and how likely recreating last year’s run is. Even if they stumble out of the gate, Rolla could again be in position to make a run come November.
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Fast Football in Camdenton?
My man Chris Parker called and told me that Camdenton was going up-tempo and I laughed. Then I saw the video and thought that maybe Jeff Shore is making some changes to the Laker offense. Let’s be honest, a spread/no-huddle offense is about as anti-Shore as it gets. But, Coach Shore has the pieces to make it work. Junior quarterback Paxton Delaurent is a dual-threat guy, playing up-tempo will highlight his strengths, especially with the Lakers throwing the football more. Gabe Kurtz and Eli Griffin are excellent in space and both should good plenty of perimeter touches. Camdenton is staying in Class 4, but they’re getting out of the district with Webb City and Carl Junction. A revamped offense could be exactly what it takes to get the Lake Show rolling again.
Getting a district championship for the first time since 2010 didn’t satisfy Lebanon, it only increased their hunger. The Jackets bring back 20 full or part-time starters from last year and the infrastructure to replace John Berry. The thing that Will Christian does better than anyone else is play a brand of football that travels; Lebanon will always run the rock and be sound defensively. So, returning standouts like senior offensive lineman Malik Culp and senior safety Ty Glendenning is huge. They both set the tone. Culp is a physical bulldozer that can help galvanize that unit and Glendenning will lead a defense that returns key names like Jayden Ivey, Curtis Mobley, Dalton Shaddy and Tyler Paul. They struggled at times last year but seem more equipped to hold their own this season. Joey Boshe will be the next Lebanon 1,500-yard back after rushing for 644 yards and six touchdowns on just 75 carries. Behind Culp and Cole Godwin, Boshe – and Ivey – could be looking at plenty of running room.
Best of the Rest
Glendale is nearly starting over after losing 17 starters. Mike Mauk will look for his next quarterback, but senior receivers Winston Quinn (62-740-8) and Ryan Moon (35-344-2) both return and should see massive increases in production. Senior Jaxon Harbour had 98 tackles and four interceptions and will again be a leader defensively. The Falcons will likely be fine offensively, the question will be how an inexperienced defense adjusts to Friday nights and a system that could put them in some adverse positions due to pace… Nate Thomas first season at Kickapoo was a grind. The Poo continues to rebuild following a 4-year run that saw the Chiefs post 39 wins. Thomas is handing over the reins offensively to junior Cross Elmquist, dynamic dual-threat quarterback. Three starters upfront and several receivers on the perimeter give Elmquist the tools to hit the ground running. This team has the potential to be sneaky good … Hillcrest enters Year One of the Justin Gerald era and the Hillcrest alum has the pieces to compete immediately. Seniors Blake Hanna and Brenden Weaver will lead the defensive unit from the secondary. Junior Dion Davis will be the key. He had a solid season as a sophomore and will take over the work-horse role this fall behind an experienced offensive line. The Hornets are a sleeper in the OC… Joe Haynes takes over at Waynesville and the Tigers return just three starters. They’ll likely be running a pro-style offense with some spread concepts. While they’ll largely be inexperienced, look for junior running back Sheen Butler-Lawson (1,087 rushing yards, 11 TD) to be a focal point offensively. He’s an elusive back with great hands and capable of withstanding 25-30 touches a game. They’ll need him to shoulder the load offensively. Waynesville hasn’t won a game since 2015… Sean Nevills and Central are also winless since 2015, riding a 21-game winless streak. Nevills is a fiery, passionate guy and transitioning into the Ozark Conference will give the program some stability and energy. The Bulldogs will play a classic brand of football; establish the run, defend the run and chew clock. It’s been a long two years, but Nevills has them heading in the right direction.
MVP: Junior RB Brayden Lidgard, West Plains
The numbers speak for themselves. As a sophomore, Lidgard totaled 2,793 yards from scrimmage and 39 touchdowns – one of the best single-seasons in the history of the O-Zone. He’s devastating when getting the ball in open field and West Plains does a tremendous job of getting him a variety of touches. All he did in the offseason was gain weight and get faster. With the bulk of his offense back, Lidgard could be looking at another record-breaking season.
Co-Offensive POY: Senior RB Blake Delacruz, Parkview & Senior WR Winston Quinn, Glendale
Last year he set Parkview’s single-season rushing record with 2,136 yards. He’s rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his last 12 games with seven of those being 200-yard performances. Delacruz forces you to load the box and even then it’s not enough. With standout lineman Ethan Day returning, he’ll have no shortage of holes.
Quinn had a modest season, recording 62 receptions for 740 yards and eight touchdowns. But, Alex Huston is gone, as well as Glendale’s top three receivers from last year (who combined for 263 catches, 3,458 yards and 39 touchdowns). Quinn is long and athletic, with his 6-foot-3 frame being a safety blanket. He can break defenders off with crisp routes or out-athlete them for jump balls. He plays in a pass-happy offense with inexperience defensively. If they’re playing from behind a lot he’ll rack up some crazy numbers.
Defensive POY: Senior ATH Lane Jett, West Plains
Is he a safety? Is he a linebacker? I’m not really sure. Honestly, it doesn’t matter because he just makes plays. Jett does that Honey Badger thing where he creeps up in the box and plays at the line of scrimmage, but he’s also great in pass coverage. Jett is also a fitting name because the kid plays 100 miles per hour and blows stuff up. All he did was put up 134 tackles and four interceptions with a blocked punt, blocked FG and led West Plains in quarterback hurries. He balls.
Co-Breakout Player: Junior RB Dion Davis, Hillcrest & Junior QB Cross Emlquist, Kickapoo
His sophomore season was the appetizer, with Davis rushing for 684 yards and nine touchdowns on 111 carries, but this is the breakout season. Gerald will be sure to get him touches however possible and Davis’ 5-foot-11, 210lb frame allows him to run through or away from people. He hit Parkview for 203 and Kickapoo for 147, being a spark late that changed Hillcrest’s season. Davis has high-level potential.
Full disclosure, Elmquist is going to make some mistakes as a first-time starting quarterback. But, coaches love his football IQ, athleticism and accuracy; his ball doesn’t have a ton of pop yet, but he knows what do to with it. Elmquist looks the part and he wants to be great. He has a stable of solid receivers and Austin Hutson is the perfect go-to guy for a young quarterback because of his consistency. Junior Chase Kruse is another name to keep an eye on. Kickapoo is going to be the surprise team in the Ozark Conference and how he commands the offense will be a major reason why.
Most Underrated Player: Senior ATH Blaize Klossner, Rolla
It’s hard to be any more productive than what Klossner was last year. More than 100 receptions, nearly 500 rushing yards and pushing 100 tackles says a lot about what kind of football player this kid is. His production may dip slightly but his impact won’t. Klossner must be accounted for on both sides of the ball and his play in last year’s run was paramount.
Kickapoo at Lebanon
Hillcrest at West Plains
Central at Parkview
Glendale at Hillcrest
Camdenton at West Plains
Lebanon at Waynesville
Kickapoo at Parkview
West Plains at Kickapoo
Kickapoo at Glendale
Lebanon at Camdenton
West Plains at Parkview
Parkview at Hillcrest
Hillcrest at Kickapoo