By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Willard will have a bit of a rebuild after losing 13 starters and several big names from last year’s 5-6 group.
Don’t let the surface of the record fool you, four of Willard’s six losses came against Joplin, Carthage and Webb City (2), all three played for state championships of their respective classes with Carthage and Webb City bringing home titles.
The Tigers’ other two losses – at Nixa and at Republic – came by a combined eight points. In a normal year, this would have been one of the top teams in the COC and maybe in Class 4.
The rebuild does include the return of 10 starters, including a pair of All-COC selections in seniors Marshall Swadley and Eli Aye.
Swadley is the team’s returning leader in rushing yards and tackles. Aye was one of the league’s top deep threats, racking up 667 yards and six touchdowns on just 28 receptions.
Both will be the focal point of Willard’s offense this season.
“Marshall is a powerhouse of a kid,” said Willard head coach Brock Roweton. “He would have placed in the top three in state in shot and discus this past track season had we had it (state track). His speed has improved big time and just his overall confidence of what is going on with him now being a senior. He will have a great year.
“Eli Aye will be as fast as any receiver in the area. He had a breakout year last year. He will touch the ball as a receiver as well as we will hand him the ball. Last year was his first year playing wide receiver, so he is much more confident in his movements. He also works very hard to be a good blocker as a receiver.”
Seniors Cole Keeton and Elliot Friend return to anchor the line, bringing size and physicality to the trenches. Classmate Kanin Keller returns to his fullback position and junior Isaac Shaw is a big, physical tight end.
The triggerman for everything appears to be junior Tyler Janes, although a competition through the fall will decide the starter.
“Tyler had a great junior varsity season. He showed he can be a weapon as a runner and is an accurate passer. He’s in the same position to come in and have success just like Dawson Reece did two years ago,” Roweton said.
Junior Jordan Nuttall and sophomores Kuron Johnson and Breckan Murray – who average 265 pounds each – will look to solidify the offensive line. As always, the Tigers will again look to establish a power running game.
Defensively, Swadley will also set the tone from his inside linebacker spot. He’ll be flanked by classmates Jonas Keohane and Dylan Leach.
Seniors Sergio Hernandez and Rylan Dixon will return as defensive end starters. Classmates Gavin Burk and Evan Hancock, as well as junior Blaine Willard, will anchor the defensive backfield.
Roweton is expecting senior Blake Hultgren and sophomore Owen Bushnell to find impactful roles on either side of the ball. Both possess the size and athleticism to make major contributions.
“Blake is put together like you want all varsity athletes to look like,” said Roweton. “He will be a big time playmaker on both sides of the ball. Owen is a natural football player that will play somewhere either offensively or defensively.”
Roweton is no stranger to the COC. He fully understands just how difficult it is to win in the league, then turn around and have to beat many of those same teams in the playoffs.
Despite pockets of inexperience is another tough conference slate top to bottom, Roweton is hopeful his team can quickly acclimate to the speed of Friday nights and compete week in and week out.
“We have a good mixture of youth and experience back,” said Roweton. “We will need our young guys to come along quickly and improve their intensity as varsity players to compete. Our returning starters need to make a jump and not just be players on the field but be guys people talk about after watching them play.”