By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Ryan McFarland is entering his fifth season at Seneca and in his four completed seasons, three have been ended by a team that went on to play for the Class 3 state title.
That was again the case last season as Seneca’s 8-4 campaign, including a road upset of undefeated Mount Vernon, was ended by a 30-20 loss to eventual Class 3 runner-up Cassville.
Seneca’s 2020 class will be known as a resilient one, going toe-to-toe with some of the best teams Monett, Mount Vernon and Cassville have ever produced.
“We will definitely miss our seniors from last year,” said McFarland. “Personally they were freshman my first year at Seneca so that will always make them a special group to me. That group had a lot of success on the field and they were Big 8 runners-up twice and made it to the district championship game last season. As much as we will miss them, we are excited about the groups of players we have returning this season.”
And that group of returners is loaded with talent, led by starting quarterback Lance Stephens.
An All-Big 8 pick, Stephens passed for 1,050 yards and nine touchdowns, while adding 257 yards on the ground.
He will guide an offense that has the potential to be vertically and horizontally explosive.
“Lance exceeded most people’s expectations last year,” said McFarland. “In the off-season he has put an emphasis on becoming a better runner. He is very talented at throwing the ball. He has always been a smart player but this off-season he has focused more on learning how to study game film. Last year he had a handful of older skilled players to lean on, but this year he will be the guy leading our younger skilled players.”
In front of Stephens is the league’s most experienced offensive line, led by All-Big 8 seniors Grant Hoover and Garret Babbitt. They’ll be joined by classmates Dayton Schick and David McLendon. Junior Tanner Nesvold is the fifth returning starter, while seniors Kaden Fobair and Alex Denton, as well as junior Brock Hultman will also be in the mix.
“Garret Babbitt and Grant Hoover are two linemen that have been playing on the offensive line since their sophomore seasons,” said McFarland. “They will lead a very veteran line this year and how this group comes together as a unit will be a big factor in determining our 2020 success. We are excited about our offensive line as a whole. My biggest fear for them is that they get complacent and I am hoping Garrett and Grant will set the tone early that compliancy isn’t an option.”
They’ll be paving the way for junior Jaxon Graham, who has all the makings of a breakout candidate after rushing for 311 yards and three touchdowns on just 26 carries.
He’s also the cousin of former Seneca start Braxton Graham, who helped carry Seneca to the Class 3 state championship game in 2013. His 393 carries, 13 100-yard games and 53 total touchdowns are still top-10 all-time marks in MSHSAA history.
“We hope the family name carries over the same success Braxton was able to accomplish during his career,” said McFarland. “Jaxson is an extremely hard worker who is our strongest player pound for pound. He has put on 20 pounds of good weight since last season and is prepared to take on the beating of being an every down back. He is our fastest and quickest player we have.”
The defensive unit also has the potential to be a dangerous group this fall.
Seniors Zane Cotten (95 tackles, 2 INT) and Nick Arrasmith (104 tackles) are both returning All-Big 8 players at safety and linebacker respectively. Classmate Dillon Myers (80 tackles) is also a returning starter.
“This will be Zane’s third year as a starter at free safety for us,” said McFarland. “He was our leading tackler as a junior and we look forward to him being the vocal leader of our defense in 2020. We will have a lot of new players on our defense this year and we will look for Zane be a coach on the field as our younger guys adjust to the speed of playing on Friday nights.
“Nick will need to be the leader up front for our football team to be successful. This will also be his third year of playing on Friday nights. Nick has the tools to be a dominant defensive player on Friday nights. As we are developing inexperienced defensive linemen we need Nick to be a leader for them and to make a few extra plays while they gain experience.”
Seniors Lucas Marr and Austin Ferguson, as well as junior Dylan Dragoo will battle for playing time in the secondary. Juniors Dane Napier, Gabriel Commons and Ethan Fritchey will see reps at linebacker.
Junior Brock Hultman will figure into the defensive line equation. Sophomore Conner Ackerson could see time at receiver and in the secondary, as could junior Quinton Platner.
Although there are pockets of inexperience, there is no denying the talent on Seneca’s roster.
The Big 8 will again be loaded in Class 3, with the District 6 winner again being a favorite to make a deep playoff run. We’ve witnessed nine Final Four appearances from league members since 2015.
For Seneca to become one of those teams in 2020, McFarland knows navigating the Big 8 during the regular season and postseason will come down to preparedness and physicality in the trenches.
“The Big 8 is tough; each team continues to reload and just when you think they might not be as good they have kids step up and are just as good or better than the year before,” said McFarland. “We have some great coaches and coaching staffs in the Big 8. Like every year, you fight to survive that Big 8 West schedule and then we get to turn back around and play the same schools in our district. We were able to make it to the district championship game this past year, but couldn’t beat Cassville the second time. As it seems to be the case every year, a member of the Big 8 was a representative in the state championship game. We feel great about the direction of our football program and we are preparing to compete for both conference and district championships in 2020.
“For us to continue to compete and to win a conference and district championship we have to continue to prepare both in the weight room with strength training and speed development. I am very proud of how our players have developed in the weight room compared to my first couple years. Now we need to be able to play faster. We must first continue to develop individual speed and quickness and then we have to continue to become better students of the game so we can play faster and not have to think so much. I’ve said this a lot, but we should have a very good offensive line. If they continue to develop we will line up and run the football and try to physically beat our opponents. That should set up our play-action passing game for big plays. We have the talent to be successful. We just have to go out and prove it.”
Seneca will open the 2020 season on Aug. 28 at Marshfield.