By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Hillcrest caught a tough blow in the injury department early last year as three players went down with ACL injuries in Week 2. The Hornets were able to find some gems in their underclassmen group to fill spots, but the season finished with a 2-8 record in the opening round of districts.
Now the Hornets have a stout class of 15 seniors and 16 returning starters that has the team eyeing a bounce-back year. The increased numbers should prevent the amount of two-way players the program has needed in recent years.
“I’m excited that probably none of the defense will start on offense,” third-year head coach Justin Gerald said. “The depth for us is real. There are a few guys where you might say: ‘That’s your backup? You must be doing pretty good, because that guy started last year.’”
Hillcrest did manage to participate in the Parkview 7-on-7 before the Missouri Football Coaches Association guidance recommended workouts be kept internal. Gerald called it an important lesson for his newcomers as they continue to gel.
Prior to that, Hillcrest shifted to a new workout model that saw a lot more mixing of athletes from different sports as they took part in the same routines. That fostered a stronger presence in the weight room and allowed the football program to pick up close to a dozen new players.
The most experience can be found in the trenches, as seniors Austin Mahon and Emmanuel Cobayashi join juniors Daniel Allen and Jacob Gott as returning with starting experience. Cobayashi has a chance to transition to tight end this year as he has progressed both strength and speed-wise in the offseason.
“He has the lineman mentality, being a center for two years,” said Gerald. “He has developed this athletic ability dating back to the winter, and it’s taken off. I expect you will see him find the end zone this year.”
Sophomore Tracen Tate (6’3, 330 pounds) should round out the line, while fellow sophomores Jake Ramsey and Brent Perryman expect to battle for the final spot.
Mike Floyd is back for his second year at quarterback after learning on the job last season. He showed impressive work with his legs as a sophomore, and Gerald believes his arm is catching up.
“When we have a good practice, it is usually because (Floyd) is up and energetic. When something good happens, he lets everybody know, and when something goes wrong, he takes the blame for it. He handled the role well last year. His accuracy was a bit off, but his running ability is there. Every practice, he gets a little more accurate and confident.”
Running back Tyrell Hurd also stepped up in the face of injuries last season. As a freshman, he led the Hornets with 500 yards on 100 carries. Coaches expected him to see the field eventually, but the early start to his career could pay dividends this year.
“He can run against a defense like Camdenton at 155 pounds, get up, and then do it again, it speaks to his toughness. He stayed healthy through the majority of the season when we needed him. He has vision and an ability to make cuts that had us going: ‘Okay, he’s going to be fine.’”
Senior Trevor Goodman, who was among the season-ending injuries early last year, should be back to contribute to the ground game as well.
Gunnar Brooks, another senior, is among those who benefit from the bolstered roster. He was among the Hornets’ leading tacklers a season ago, but now will likely only have to focus on his role at receiver. Junior Bill Anderson should be another target in the passing game.
AJ Taylor is another senior to watch out for at middle linebacker. He asserted himself as one of the main defensive leaders late in the 2019 season, and he will take that mindset into this fall.
Hillcrest also adds Bolivar to this year’s schedule after the Liberators knocked them out of districts. That loss served as early motivation to get the Hornets into the weight room, but they are now running on their own desire to take a leap as a program.
“We used that Bolivar game as a reason to get into the weight room. Going into the end of winter and spring, we didn’t need that motivation anymore. We enjoy working now and we understand what it’s going to take. I think you’re going to see a legitimate Hillcrest team that the staff is excited about.”
Hillcrest is scheduled to open the season on Aug. 28 against Lebanon.