By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
After bottoming out with a winless season in 2017, the Diamond football team under head coach Mac Whitehead has won a combined five games the last two seasons.
Whitehead, who’s entering his third year at the helm, hopes the Wildcats can carry over some momentum from the last two seasons.
“We didn’t finish how we wanted to but I still felt like we were picking up momentum because the strength of our schedule was harder our second year than it was our first year,” he said of last year’s 2-8 campaign. “Our second year we played Adrian which for a large portion of the year was ranked in the top 10 in Class 1 and they finished high in their district up north. I told our kids we want to play quality opponents and we want to develop a culture at Diamond of success and the way we’re going to do that is we need to raise our level of play quite ab it so we scheduled tougher opponents and I think by doing that our kids are able to see where we need to be at.”
The Southwest Conference also provided some tough opponents. Pierce City and Miller were ranked in the top 10 throughout the season and the Wildcats also had to play Thayer, who beat Pierce City in the district championship. Those four opponents alone – Adrian, Pierce City, Miller and Thayer – combined to go 41-7.
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Diamond will have to replace some key contributors if the team hopes to take a step forward this year. Three of the team’s five all-conference honorees were seniors: linebacker John Odom (honorable mention), wide receiver Austin Behler (honorable mention) and punter Cameron Addington (second team).
Addington was also the team’s quarterback and a captain. He passed for 898 yards and five touchdowns and added three scores on the ground.
“He was a two-way starter, was quarterback for the majority of the season and started at safety and linebacker,” Whitehead said. “He’s one of those kids, it’s not just what he brings on the field, it’s everything he brings off the field as well.”
Senior running back Kolbe Jones also graduated after rushing for 255 yards and a touchdown. He ranked second on the team with 32 total tackles while also playing free safety. And Odom was the team leader with 45 stops.
Offensively, Diamond returns about six players who started the majority of last season. Landon Clement, now a junior, started the last four games at quarterback and threw for 238 yards. He’ll return as the starter this fall. The son of Diamond’s junior high coach, Whitehead described him as having another coach on the field.
“The fact that he’s started on both sides of the ball since he was a freshman and he’s already seen 20 varsity games, that kind of experience helps the maturity that he has at the quarterback position,” Whitehead said. “He’s our hardest worker in the weight room and when it comes to practice.”
“He’s a very strong runner,” he said. “We’re not going to ask him to go out there and win ballgames by himself. He’s going to be one of those guys that makes the plays when we need him to and makes sure we’re in the right spot to be successful. I know he’s excited to show everyone what he can do.”
Junior Isaac Baird returns at wide receiver and junior Hunter Shallenburger returns as the team’s most productive offensive player. He rushed for 321 yards and hauled in 502 yards receiving while scoring 10 total touchdowns.
“It’s nice to have those three juniors coming back,” Whitehead said. “Those three right there, they’ve been starting since they were freshmen. We finally got to a point where now all those young kids that had to start when they were freshmen are upperclassmen now. Obviously that leads to some excitement in the locker room knowing they’re not the young guys anymore.”
Other returning starters are sophomore Clay Callis, who played every game at right tackle; Ty Douglas, a junior who started every game at guard and Tyler May, a junior who started all 10 games on the offensive line.
“Those six guys right there are probably going to be the nuts and bolts of who we are counting on day in and day out,” Whitehead said.
That still leaves a handful of openings. Sophomore Blake Irwin looks to start at receiver, as does junior Chase Housh. Zach Baird, one of five seniors on the roster, will probably start on the offensive line. Sophomore Alex Brown could fill another spot on the line. Senior Jayce Taylor missed last year with an injury but could start at tight end. Cody Behler, another senior, started on defense last year and will likely play on both sides of the ball this year.
A handful of sophomores are also competing at wide receiver.
On the defensive side, Behler will start at linebacker after making 21 tackles last year, Clement returns after making nine tackles as a linebacker, Isaac Baird returns at defensive end after making 16 stops, Shallenburger returns in the defensive backfield after making 17 tackles, May returns to the line after recording 26 tackles and Simon Burke returns on the line after making 12 tackles.
Sophomore X-zontae Foster started a couple games at defensive end and made 11 stops. He’s competing for a starting spot this fall. So is Sophomore Ty McDermott, who is also competing for a spot on the defensive line.
Erin and Housh will both play in the defensive backfield, Taylor will play linebacker and Zach Baird will see time on the defensive line.
Whitehead said the team’s strengths are in numbers with so many returning players with varsity experience. While last year’s team had several seniors, only a couple had played meaningful varsity minutes beforehand. This year the Wildcats have three juniors who will be three-year starters and some sophomores who started every game as freshmen.
Whitehead’s expectations are to compete for a conference championship. He said that’s been the goal since the day he arrived.
“I think our kids are ready to finally take that step,” he said. “The last couple of years we’ve taken our lumps because we’ve started all those young kids. Now we’re in a place we can compete every week in our conference.”
Whitehead expects the roster to number about 40 when the season starts. That’s nearly double the number from two years ago.
The team has also added two coaches to its staff. Nathan Moser has joined as an assistant and Bryan Adams, the school’s boys basketball coach, is also on board.