By Jordan Burton
The SCA continues to be one of the premier football conferences in Missouri and 2018 should be no exception, but the league will have a new feel to it. Mountain Grove (Brandon Rogers) and Cabool (Vincent McCrosky) have new coaches, the Panthers also begin life after the loaded Class of 2018 and Ava, Thayer and Salem all return enough to recreate last year’s playoff runs. Here’s what you should know.
Can anyone stop Ava?
Like everyone else, I made the mistake of just assuming Lamar would walk to the Final Four… and then Ava happened. The Bears gave Lamar everything it could handle and then some. Despite losing a great senior class, Ava again may be the most equipped Class 2 team in Missouri to end Lamar’s run. Dan Swofford has some horses back in the fold. Senior Caleb Johnson will likely be an All-O-Zone selection because of his productivity on both sides of the ball; he’s a four-year starter that has been through the wars. Classmate Stephen Copeland (1,106 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) will be one of the top backs in the area and is a home run threat anytime he touches the ball; he even put up 114 yards and two touchdowns – on just 17 touches – against Lamar. One of the keys will be the development of junior Kayden Myers. His sophomore year was stellar (141 tackles; 392 rushing yards, 8 TD). Now he’ll take over the dive back role in Ava’s option offense. The Bears’ line won’t be as big or as experienced, but their skill guys are elite at that level. A few position groups have some inexperience, but this group had some incoming depth. Last year’s ending couldn’t be more perfect for this year’s edition. Ava was able to make some history by winning its first outright, unshared conference championship since 1986. Seeing Lamar and understanding that they’re human is the first step necessary to pull off an upset. If Ava can regain its defensive dominance – they pitched five shutouts and held two additional opponents to one score or less – this is a team capable of making history.
Liberty ready to reassert dominance
Prior to 2017, the last time MV-BT Liberty didn’t win either a conference or district championship was 2007. The Eagles struggled out of the gate, rallied to win five of their last six games before a district semifinal loss to Ava. They’re hungry now. Darin Acklin returns 15 starters from last year’s group and could again have another explosive offense on his hands. Junior Jaris Acklin is back after starting as a sophomore and has three linemen upfront and a pair of perimeter options in seniors Andrew Holden and Colten Foster that are gamechangers. Seniors Brodyn Kenaga, Bob Bews and Lance Wilson are a trio of two-way lineman that are as experienced as they come. Look for this team to get back to Liberty Football; being extremely balanced offensively and physical/aggressive defensively. Furthermore, they all have something to prove. As a program, I think they all take last season’s win-loss total personally. Look for this to be a redemption tour. The question is, can they hang with the likes of Ava and Lamar, the two teams they’d need to beat to make the run they want. We’ll get our answer eventually.
Side Bar: Andrew Holden may be a sneaky threat for an All-O-Zone season. He’s a great deep threat at 6-foot-5, 200lbs and Acklin is the best deep ball quarterback in the Ozarks. Look for that connection to be extremely active throughout the season.
Thayer is till Thayer
This will be another Billy Webber team at Thayer; they’ll be physical and run the ball effectively. The Bobcats are again one of the top teams in Class 1, with seniors Ayden Stone, Blake Meizler and Jace Matteson being some of the 10 starters returning in 2018 for Thayer. There is some roster turnover from last year, but this group has the potential to be as stingy or even stingier than last year’s team. Thayer had four shutouts in 2017, at one point going three consecutive weeks without allowing a score. By now, you should know that Stone is one of the most impactful defensive players in the Ozarks and Meizler is also an all-state linebacker, but sophomore Jayce Haven will be inheriting that title soon. As a freshman he made an impact in the secondary and this fall he will see an even larger role on both sides of the ball. They may struggle with the speed of Ava and Liberty, but they’ll again be among the most physical teams in the SCA. Class 1 in Southwest Missouri still goes through Thayer, will the SCA take the same detour?
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Houston on the rise
Eric Sloan has done a tremendous job of reviving Houston Football. We aren’t too far removed from a time when Houston went winless in five of nine seasons between 2006 and 2014. In fact, Sloan’s three wins last season were more than any other Houston team has put together since 2008 with the exception of his 2015 group. It’s not so much the wins, as it is the respect that they’ve earned by being competitive in a tough SCA schedule. This year’s Houston team will have a chance to continue that. Returning 10 starters is decent, but the transfer of Devin Wallander will help solidify an offensive line that is imperative in Sloan’s smashmouth brand. Senior Paydon Dixon is a two-way guy that can be a star in SCA and Dakota Burchett is back at quarterback.
Best of the Rest
AD turned coach Brandon Rodgers takes over at Mountain Grove and it’s the end of an era. Otwells have been under center for the better part of the last half decade, which has seen the Panthers win 58 games in six seasons. Now, Grove will attempt to reload with a new roster and new coach. He waves goodbye to virtually every yard accounted for, but Trevor Thompson will add running back to his list of mastered positions after having a monster junior year at linebacker and tight end. Rhett Wakefield will also be a two-way starter. They have the pieces to compete immediately, especially when they get acclimated with Rodgers… Salem had a great run in 2017, winning six straight games to earn a Sweet 16 berth. Brian McNamee loses several horses from that team, but look for the Tigers to reload behind running back turned quarterback Chandler Gray. Salem could be HUGE up front, potentially with All-SCA senior Nick Case its smallest lineman. They could be 3-0 heading into a Week 4 showdown with Thayer… Willow Springs will be much better in Logan Schwalm’s second season, especially with Tryton Henley returning at quarterback. He made the offense go last season and will be even better this fall. A full year in the system will help the entire roster… Cabool is also ushering in a new regime with Vincent McCrosky taking over… again. The quotes in his preview were great and I think he understands the enormity of the task at hand. Cabool has gone winless in four of the last six seasons. While they do have great numbers this season, McCrosky will have to find production on a roster full of youth and inexperience. However, he has a few returners up front and a ton of swag. That’s a decent start.
MVP: Senior QB/DE Caleb Johnson, Ava
It feels like he’s been at Ava for a decade, but that’s usually what happens when you begin starting as a freshman. Now, Johnson has matured into the best all-around football player in the league and one of the tops in the Ozarks. The dual-threat quarterback accounted for 1,239 yards and 19 touchdowns, but also returned two kickoffs, a punt and a fumble for a score; he just loves the end zone. Defensively all he did was rack up 57 tackles and 13 sacks. He’ll go down as one of the best to ever wear an Ava uniform.
Offensive POY: Junior QB Jaris Acklin, MV-BT/Liberty
It can’t be easy carrying this last name, but the younger Acklin is making a name in his own way; he throws the poo out of the ball. His arm is amongst the most live in the Ozarks and there’s not many throws he can’t make. He finished last year strong, passing for 1,826 yards and 21 touchdowns. He returns a ton of weapons, a solid offensive line and physical & mental maturity to go with his confidence. Watch out.
Co-Defensive POY: Senior LB Ayden Stone, Thayer & Senior LB Trevor Thompson, Mountain Grove
Valle Catholic fans still talk about what Stone did against them as a sophomore, helping Thayer give the state power way more than they wanted. Stone is a 6-foot-5 hybrid linebacker/defensive end type that can get after the quarterback or stretch running plays out wide. He also starts at quarterback, but defensively he nearly shuts down a side of the field.
Thompson has put together back-to-back 100-tackle seasons, but his junior campaign was really special. He registered 134 tackles, 87 of those were solo stops. Really, he just makes plays. His 13 tackles for loss were impressive, as were his two interceptions in a league that doesn’t see many passes, but his most telling stat is his five forced fumbles and two blocked kicks. He’s just an animal.
Co-Breakout Player: Senior Chandler Gray, Salem & Junior Tryton Henley, Willow Springs
It’s not like Gray is an unknown or anything. As a junior he rushed for 610 yards and seven touchdowns. This fall he’ll transition to quarterback, where his speed running the option will be trouble for everyone else in the SCA. His halfback touchdown pass against Dexter from last year suggests he may be a legitimate dual-threat guy.
His sophomore year, Willow’s first under Logan Schwalm, Henley was able to find success on both sides of the ball. As a dual-threat quarterback he passed for 722 yards and six touchdowns, on the ground he rushed for 733 yards and six more scores. Defensively he had 55 tackles and a pair of interceptions. He’ll make a natural jump physically from sophomore to junior year. He’s also had a full season to grasp Schwalm’s concepts and brings back a few key pieces around him. He could flirt with a 1,000-1,000 season as a junior.
Most Underrated Player: Senior Paydon Dixon, Houston
A position change shifted Dixon’s junior season from good to great. He ended up totaling 806 yards with 18 total touchdowns. Being a full-time running back this fall could push him toward a 1,000-yard season. He’s also solid defensively, where he had 79 tackles and a pair of interceptions as a defensive back.