By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
To call Matt Perkins’ first season at West Plains successful would be putting it mildly.
The Zizzers were state-ranked nearly wire-to-wire, coming up just an overtime field goal short of an Ozark Conference championship and losing to undefeated Bolivar in the loaded Class 4 – District 6 semifinals.
West Plains now must wave good bye to the experienced and loaded 2020 class, a group that won 29 games over the last three seasons, which makes this COVID-19 filled offseason even more detrimental.
“One thing about working with Steve Ary was that he enabled his coaches to coach,” said Perkins. “I felt like there were a lot of responsibilities as an assistant coach that helped me be ready for round two as a head coach. West Plains is a great community and the support for their football program shines through. It has been a great experience. The transition last year was chaotic with the late hiring, but this year has been unique too with COVID. One thing about being a head coach is you must be ready and willing to adjust.
“The 2020 senior class was special. They dealt with a lot of adversity playing under a new head coach as seniors. They rose to the occasion and helped to continue building the football culture at West Plains High School. They are going to be missed.”
Perkins does return 10 starters and while there will be elements of a rebuild, he and the Zizzers are confident that it could quickly transition into a reload.
Defensively, West Plains returns six starters, all of whom were major impact players last fall.
Senior Titus Seley returns after an all-state junior campaign where he led the Zizzers with 140 tackles, also adding 11 tackles for loss. Classmate Trey Luna will return to the linebacking corps as well after an All-OC junior season (54 tackles, 8 TFL).
Senior Sebastian Rogers was another All-OC performer, but on the defensive line, recording seven sacks from his nose guard spot.
A talented junior class saw significant reps as sophomores, with Aedyn Holt starting at defensive tackle (64 tackles, 12.5 TFL). Classmate trio of Dagen Kenslow (3 INT, 7 PBUs), Garrett Drown (48 tackles) and Jason Lopez (28 tackles) all started in the back half of the defense.
“While we return three All-OC players, we lost a lot of production in the secondary and defensive line,” said Perkins. “Some of our newcomers will have to step up and we think that they will. Our defensive unit will be a special group if they continue to put in the work necessary.”
Senior Chance Eldringhoff will add leadership to the secondary, while junior Dakota Hansen adds another big, athletic frame. Junior Gabe Sellers will compete for reps at defensive end with a great, 6-foot-6, 240lb frame.
Sophomores Jesse Hudson and Carter McCrackin have also made great strides and seem ready for significant varsity reps.
The offensive side of the ball will look different for West Plains after losing stalwarts Brayden Lidgard and Connor Rackley. Last year they combined for nearly 4,000 yards from scrimmage and 54 total touchdowns.
“Losing Lidgard is a whole different beast,” said Perkins. “The kid did things on Friday nights that are video game-like. Losing Connor Rackley hurts me personally as he and I were pretty close. He is also a good high school player.”
Their replacements will be familiar names in defensive standouts Titus Seley and Dagen Kenslow. Perkins believes both players can be impact guys on either side of the ball.
“We believe we are putting a player in that position that is extremely gifted athletically and his traits are going to be a focus of our offense,” said Perkins of Kenslow. “He’s 6-foot-2 and190 pounds with a 34″ vertical and 4.6 40-yard dash; he’s a worker in the weight room. We are excited to see what he brings to the program on the offensive side of the ball.
“We feel we are equipped well to handle the loss of Brayden but our replacement will definitely be a different kind of ball carrier. Titus Seley is the most physical kid in the conference. He squats 535, cleans over 330 benches over 330 and is shaped like a bowling ball. We are excited to hand the ball off to him and believe he is the best kept secret in the OC.”
Last year there were question marks surrounding the West Plains offensive line due to graduation losses. This year the Zizzers return one of the biggest and most physical groups in the Ozarks.
Junior Jaylon James is a 6-foot-6, 315-pound left tackle that will anchor the unit after an All-OC sophomore season. He’ll be joined by returning interior starters and classmates Blake Reid and Aedyn Holt.
Seniors Wyatt Barnes and Logan Watson, juniors Austin Davis and Gabe Dietrich, as well as sophomores Logan Sitzes and Magnus Sanders, will be in the mix to fill out the line.
Senior Colt Hickson, juniors Connor Lair and Dalton Cox and sophomore Heston Miller will all see expanded roles offensively.
Senior Syler Stowers will also figure into the equation somewhere. His versatility allows him to play any position on the field. He could be in line for a breakout season.
Year Two has the potential to be another special one for Perkins and West Plains. And, for the Zizzers to reach the goals they’ve set for themselves, the recipe is simple.
“We must stay healthy and focused,” said Perkins. “We feel like we’re as talented as anybody in the conference and are excited for the 2020 season.”
West Plains will open the 2020 season on Aug. 28 at Glendale. The Zizzers home-opener is the following Friday against Hillcrest.
Senior Night will come on Oct. 23 against Bolivar.