By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Ozark Conference will be one of the area’s most competitive conferences this year. Here is what to watch.
Who’s the favorite?
This might be the million dollar question in the Ozark Conference. Fans voted Camdenton No. 1 followed closely by West Plains and Lebanon. There’s a clear gap between those three and the rest of the league on paper. Even better, these three have taken turns beating each other recently. Last year West Plains had a clean sweep. In 2017, West Plains beat Camdenton by one, Camdenton beat Lebanon by eight and Lebanon beat West Plains by five. In 2016, West Plains beat Lebanon by seven, Lebanon beat Camdenton by nine and Camdenton beat West Plains by 13 in a shootout (54-41). The struggle is real is trying to decipher who the true favorite is. The secret may be in scheduling. West Plains has to go to Camdenton and Lebanon with a trap game against Kickapoo sandwiched in the middle. Lebanon gets both West Plains and Camdenton at home, but the games are on back-to-back Fridays.
All three programs were hit hard by graduation, but all three return horses in Paxton DeLaurent (Camdenton), Brayden Lidgard (West Plains) and Quameire Wright (Lebanon) are among the best in Missouri at what they do.
Who’s the rushing king?
The COC may be the best football conference in the Ozarks, but the best running backs reside in the OC. The rushing crown will likely come down to who plays the most games, but the league has three monsters in the backfield in Lidgard, Wright and Shen Butler-Lawson… Lidgard has put together back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons and with a third will become the seventh player in state history to rush for 7,000 yards. He could see a dip in his rushing output this year, but expect him to become even more of a factor in the passing game. He’s Christian McCaffrey… Wright is one of the most underrated backs in the area despite being a returning 1,000-yard rusher. Everything he does is between the tackles and he’s a straight north and south guy that runs with physicality. He split carries last year because Lebanon had a loaded backfield. This year it’ll be a steady dose of Wright for OC teams. He’s Marshawn Lynch… The most talented player in the OC is Waynesville’s Shen Butler-Lawson. He already holds an offer from Purdue and there are several FBS and FCS programs monitoring his growth. He’s the perfect high school back. Great size allows him to run with power, but he also has big-time speed. Is a factor on the ground or through the air. Butler-Lawson just has a tremendous skillset. He’s David Johnson.
I’d be shocked if one of these three didn’t lead the league in rushing. They’re currently keeping some defensive coordinator up late.
The SPS champ will be…?
In order, SPS teams finished in the bottom five spots of fan voting (Kickapoo-Glendale-Parkview-Hillcrest-Central). Parkview was a perfect 4-0 against city schools last year with Glendale being the only team to keep it competitive. Hillcrest went 3-1, Glendale went 2-2, Kickapoo went 1-3 and Central went winless. The Vikings were the only SPS team to finish above .500. But, they lost 92% of their offensive production from last year. Hillcrest, Glendale and Central will all have large pockets of inexperience and turnover. The sleeper in the city is Kickapoo. The Chiefs have a favorable setup with three of their four SPS games coming at home.
It’s been a tough stretch for SPS programs. Central has had three straight winless campaigns. Kickapoo has fallen on tough times after six straight winning seasons, including a Final Four run in 2015. They’ve won just four games in the last two seasons combined. Glendale had a Class 5 Elite Eight run in 2016. Aside from that, they’ve been sub .500 every year since 2012. Hillcrest hasn’t been above .500 since 2013. With so much youth in all programs, brighter days are coming sooner rather than later. Look for this to be the season where everyone takes a step forward in becoming more competitive.
Will Paxton DeLaurent will lead the league in passing yards?
Paxton DeLaurent set every major Camdenton passing record last year. He’s back but loses a chunk of his go-to receivers. Coach Shore doesn’t want to put pressure on him to replicate his production from last season, but it’s hard to ignore the positives. The Lakers overhauled “Shore Ball” and threw it all around the yard last year. With a full offseason to get comfortable with the changes, it’s hard to assume the familiarity won’t help DeLaurent’s production. He had a great offseason in the weight room. Junior Cooper Ezard and senior Jase Nicklas were able to get their feet wet last season at receiver. Mason Kinney will also help at receiver. Don’t be surprised to see PDL put together another 3,500-40 line.
Remember the name(s)…
There are several players that are on the radar but are on the verge on having breakout seasons. Here are some names to remember this fall.
Ja’veo Toliver, Parkview – It’s hard for defensive linemen to get love but Toliver is one of the best at his position. He already holds a Missouri State offer and at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, his ability at defensive end, coupled with raw athleticism is scary. If he can build on his 75 tackles and 13 tackles for loss, he will be in the hunt for Ozark Conference Defensive POY honors.
Jack Hounsom, Rolla – He had a solid junior year as a dual-threat quarterback, passing for just over 1,000 yards and rushing for 400 more. He’s another player that has greatly improved physically and as a leader in the offseason. His comfort with the offense will allow him to have a huge season.
Kevin Poinsette, Waynesville – He was one of the top OC defensive backs last year. He broke up 12 passes and finished with four interceptions. He has excellent ball skills and a knack for making up plays. He’ll also have a larger role offensively for the Tigers. With people loading the box to stop Butler-Lawson, he should see several 1v1 opportunities.
Gavin Watts, Glendale – He looked good in his reps as a junior, although they were limited. This summer he looked the part, lighting up opponents in 7v7 action. He has a huge arm and is mobile enough to keep you honest. In Mike Mauk’s offense, he’ll have a chance to put up some major numbers.
Connor Rackley, West Plains – The SBU commit has started more games at quarterback than anyone else in the league. With Matt Perkins taking over at West Plains, he’ll be in the shotgun or pistol formation the majority of the time and have plenty of opportunities to make plays with his legs. With Lidgard in the backfield, he’ll see plenty of eight-man boxes and he’s good enough with his arm to make you pay 1v1.
Jordan Lewis, Lebanon – Also a basketball standout, Lewis has developed into one of the best defensive ends in the league. He had 54 tackles and four sacks, showing glimpses of just how good he can be. Expect a monster senior year in all sports for Lewis.
Eli Griffin, Camdenton – His brother was one of the best all-around football payers that Camdenton has seen recently, and Eli is carrying on the family name. He turned 74 carries into 16 touchdowns last year as a sophomore. He’s shifty and also has great hands out of the backfield. He will have a chance to make an impact on the ground and through the air.