By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
There is a lot of talent in the area’s small school conferences. Here are some of the teams to watch in around the area in the SCA, Mid-Lakes, Ozark Highlands and in Arkansas.
• Can Ava Reload?
We often see teams that go on extended runs take a step back at some point, even if only briefly. The Bears are coming off a 14-1 Class 2 runner-up campaign and return just seven starters from that team. They’ve had seven straight seasons over .500, including three-straight double-digit win seasons and district titles. The biggest question is how sustainable is it? Playing in a league like the SCA, odds are no. But Coach Dan Swofford has an intriguing group returning. Senior Zach Mendel will anchor a quality defense and take over at quarterback. Junior Spencer Skyles is the next great two-way running back and linebacker. Ava also returns plenty in the trenches. Maybe the most important part of what Ava does return is mystique; they’ve owned the SCA recently. The Bears have won 26 consecutive games against conference opponents and very few of those have even been close. Ava will have a transition period early as players adjust to new roles, but it won’t last long.
• Thayer Without Haven?
Speaking of SCA Country, the league will feel a little different with Thayer standout Jayce Haven going down with a collar bone injury. He’s the best two-way player in the SCA and one of the most productive guys in the Ozarks. He’s truly a game changer on both sides of the ball. With that being said, the Bobcats return 16 total starters and may be the favorite in Class 1. Jordan Madden and Jackson Willison will shoulder bigger roles and the Cats will lean on Bobby Dale and a loaded defense that allowed just 11.3 PPG. This is a group that has state championship or bust expectations after winning five consecutive district championships and going toe-to-toe with Valle Catholic twice in that span. Haven is a huge loss, and his status for the season is uncertain. If he returns, this team will be a threat to win that elusive state championship.
• Can Buffalo Get Over The Hump?
Another team looking to make history is Buffalo. It’s no secret how bad the program was – winning just seven games from 2010-2016 – but the Bison have now had back-to-back nine-win campaigns and are now looking to get over the hump in the hunt for a district title. Buffalo may have the best collection of skill position players in Class 3. Senior Jamen Smith is a stud and little brother Jaren might end up being one of the top playmakers in the area. Throw in studs Bode Abraham and Cameron Portis and it’s easy to love the speed Buffalo will have offensively and on the back end of its defense. But, that’ll be the question… can the Bison get enough stops in big games to make it work? In their six losses over the last two seasons, Buffalo has allowed an average of 35 PPG. Tightening up that side of the ball will dictate just how far Buffalo can go.
• Skyline Might Average 50 PPG
Few teams around the Ozarks scored it like Skyline did last year, averaging 40 PPG and advancing to the district championship. Even scarier, the Tigers return several key pieces from that 7-5 group meaning Brandon Shelby will have one of his most explosive units ever. Junior QB Lawson Beem passed for 3,078 yards and 36 touchdowns last year, returning two of his favorite targets in Jaytin Defreece and Zach Williams. Throw in Trey Swearingen and Skyline has several two-way playmakers. But, after being a regular in the state playoffs, Skyline hasn’t won a district title since 2015, prompting Shelby to make a change. The Tigers will open the season at defending Class 1 state champ Valle Catholic. Three weeks later they’ll visit a Slater team that was state-ranked much of last year. The message is clear; this group is good enough to make a deep run come November and the schedule reflects that. But coming off a season that saw them score more than 45 points four times last year, fans can expect the Tigers to again light up scoreboards.
• Lasater Back At Lockwood
Clay Lasater is back at Lockwood and it couldn’t come at a better time as Lockwood is LOADED on both sides of the ball with experienced seniors. As sophomores this group took some lumps, as juniors they gave them out as part of a 7-4 season, with two of those losses coming by one possession and a third coming against a talented Pierce City team (27-14). Keep in mind, this is a group that as freshmen were part of a Final Four run. Now it’s their turn. It’ll also be interesting to see what Lasater does offensively. In his previous stint as HC he was a little more spread and up-tempo. With Max Schnelle being one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the area, as well as a crop of dynamic athletes in Lane Dunlap, Blaine Garver, Jamie Dixon and Kane Cooper, and a mammoth offensive line headed by Spencer Neal. They’re the favorite in the Southwest Conference and could be locked into a loaded district depending on where Thayer and Skyline go. This has the makings to be a special season in Lockwood.
• Sleepers, Sleepers, Sleepers
Lincoln has gone 61-6 over the last five years, culminating in back-to-back Class 1 runner-up finishes. They haven’t lost at home since 2014 and they have scored 40 or more 46 times since 2015. It’s been an incredible run. But, is it over? Again, on paper it seems like the answer is yes but not so fast. Brad Drehle takes over as head coach at Lincoln and he’s had tremendous runs at the high school level, winning a ton of games and a state title at Blair Oaks. His run at Waynesville didn’t go so well most recently, but you can’t deny his acumen for Xs and Os. He now inherits a team that returns some interesting pieces in stud lineman Gabe Meherns, standout two-way starter Levi Betts and future star Kyle Eckhoff. Lincoln will surprise some people this year. That Sep. 18 showdown at Lockwood could feature two undefeated teams and have major district standing implications… In 2016 and 2017, Cabool not only didn’t win a game, but they gave up 40 or more points in nine of their 20 games. Well, let’s just so that period is far in the rear view. The Bulldogs have gone toe-to-toe with some of the top teams in the SCA with each of their last two seasons ending in districts in one-possession losses to Thayer. Tyler Splitter has the ball rolling and now he returns two of the top players in the SCA with Daniel Hutcheson and Braxton Davis back. They have someone to stretch the field in Logan Primanzon. They’re talented and physical up front too. This is a yet another team that can make a run in Class 1… Brock Kenaga takes over MV-BT/Liberty Football and he has two really important things working for him. First is familiarity. The Eagles’ staff is full of names like Acklin, French and Holland, who are no strangers to Eagle Country. That will make the transition much easier. The other thing he has is talent, and plenty of it. A trio of massive offensive linemen in Kaden Daniels, Lucas Barnes and Braden Gastineau – three more prominent Liberty names – will give the Eagles one of the biggest lines in the SCA. Junior Tyler Wells takes over at QB and he is a legitimate dual-threat option. He also has a deep crop of receivers. Liberty hasn’t won a district title since 2016 and are coming off a 5-6 season that saw three of those loses come by a single possession. Liberty may have a tough start with transitioning to a newish staff and adjusting to a brutal early schedule (Strafford, Fair Grove, Thayer, Ava) but this will be one of the hottest teams in the SCA entering district play … Fair Grove has averaged 10 wins per season over the last four years. Bill Voorhis loses a talented senior class, but he returns some hogs up front, led by Kyle Fritts and Lucas Crutcher. Voorhis has also proven to be the quarterback whisperer, developing guys like Rhett Hill, Jayden Kessinger and David Oplotnik. Now Kody Stacye is up. The Eagles have mastered the reload, they’ll again compete for a Mid-Lakes title… It’s impossible to mention Fair Grove and not mention Strafford. These two rivals play in one of the biggest local games each year, with Grove winning five of the last six. Tim Hester welcomes back a pair of studs in Vance Mullins and Mason Denning, as well as his entire offensive line from 2019. Look for the Indians to have a resurgent 2020… After years of sub-varsity games, Clever is finally going to kickoff its varsity football program. Jeff Stone has been coaching football in the Ozarks for some time. There’s no telling what to expect from this group, but he has a big, athletic quarterback in Bryce Gelle and a community that is excited about football starting up. It may not happen immediately, but Clever has the resources and talent pool to be good sooner than later…
• South of the Border
It didn’t take long for Joel Wells to turn Harrison into a state power. After having zero double-digit win seasons from 2004-2014, the Goblins have now put together back-to-back double-digit win seasons, going 24-2 over the last two years. It’s been a physical brand of football. Harrison has to replace its leading passer, rusher and receiver, but the framework is there. Senior QB Coley Keylon got some important reps last year. The lefty has a great feel for the offense and does a tremendous job of throwing the ball down the field. He gives Harrison an element they didn’t have to the same degree last year. Classmate Breckin Duck is a D1 caliber tight end. Junior Brodey Gilliam is just a stud athlete that makes plays on both sides of the ball. Harrison isn’t going anywhere, they’ll be right back in the thick of the 5A race… Mountain Home has lost 22 straight games and hasn’t been over .500 since 2006. On paper, it’s not the most appealing job ever. Which is exactly why Steve Ary took the job. Few people have mastered the art of flipping programs like Ary and it’ll be put to the test this year. But, the man that helped usher change at Mountain Grove and West Plains hired some talented coaches to help, bringing in local legend Darin Acklin and former NFL quarterback in Ryan Mallett. Those storylines are enough to make Mountain Home entertaining. But can they win in Year One? There are some pieces to like. Senior QB Bryce McKay is a legit dual-threat quarterback with sub 4.6 speed. The baseball standout can also spin the football. His favorite target is a 6-foot-3, 220lb tight end that is also a vertical threat. And, always the pillar of Ary football, is a talented running back, which he has in the form of senior Gage Hershberger. If nothing else, these Bombers will be fun to watch.