By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Ash Grove went 4-6 in 2019, doubling its win total from the previous season. A 14-12 loss to Sarcoxie to end the regular season means a mere two-point gap separated the Pirates from a .500 record.
Sophomores were a common sight on the field last fall, and now the Pirates return nine starters that have cut their teeth early in their varsity careers.
“At that age, you typically want them to have the opportunity to play on junior varsity, but they weren’t able to,” said head coach Ryan Long. “They will take another step and grow this year.”
Five seniors will lead the charge into this season, starting with Second Team All-Southwest Conference selection Jake Thompson. His postseason honor came as a defensive back, but he also spent last year as the Pirates’ quarterback. He will transition to tight end this season as his legs could be his biggest asset. He rushed 125 times for 563 yard and four touchdowns as a junior.
His versatility could also find him at linebacker during some snaps. He garnered 23 tackles, two interceptions, and a fumble recovery last year.
“He may be our strongest defensive player. He has great hands as well, so we will be looking for him to do a lot offensively.”
Dylan McCroskey is also back for his senior season following an all-conference campaign at linebacker. He sits as the team’s leading tackler after notching 33 with an interception and a fumble recovery last year. He will also return to his role on the offensive line.
Ethan Carter and Will Lanter, both seniors, will be the elder statesmen on the defensive line, and will factor into the offense at fullback and wide receiver, respectively. They combined for 360 yards and four touchdowns a year ago.
Breckin Schindler rounds out the senior class and will provide some depth at receiver and defensive back.
Brock Mooneyham will take over at quarterback in just his second year as a high school student. His age doesn’t concern Long, who believes Mooneyham has the right kind of head on his shoulders for the job.
“He has a strong arm and is a smart kid,” said Long. “We feel confident putting him back there even as a sophomore because we know he will make the right decisions.”
As the Pirates look to improve on their 17.2 points per game average from 2019, Long believes the change at quarterback and the placement of Thompson at tight end will allow the offense to mold to everyone’s strengths.
“We were a dominant running team last year, but the passing game wasn’t there. Thompson was a hard runner at quarterback, but I think we will throw it more with (Mooneyham) back there. That should open up the run game more. We have young guys up front, but they have decent size.”
Sophomore Parker Crow also proved his worth in his first varsity campaign, rushing for 314 yards and three scores. He will find a place back in the running back position and at safety. Juniors Tristyn Davis and Tristan Bower should also see snaps out of the backfield, while fellow junior Sammy Moreland will contribute at receiver.
Defensively, a focus for Long is replacing the production of Tyler Tolmasoff at linebacker. McCroskey is ready to do his part alongside Davis and Bowers, while fellow junior Zand Delk could also factor into the mix. Still, there are more tackles up for grabs.
“We lost a talented kid at that spot, and we are still looking to fill those shoes with multiple players so that we can be that hard-nosed team that we have been in the past.”
Jared Lobdell and Cannon Palmer, both juniors as well, are another pair of returning starters on the defensive and offensive lines. Senior Tanner Willman and sophomores Austin Lowack and Payton Griffin could also see snaps in the trenches.
The secondary will be populated by Mooneyham, Schindler, and Crow, while senior Dalton Carr and sophomore Elijah Morrison also expect to contribute.
Ash Grove is scheduled to open the season on Aug. 28 at Diamond.