By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
For just the second time ever, Webb City doesn’t enter the fall as defending COC champions. That title belongs to Joplin. The trio of Carthage, Joplin and Webb City gave each other classic games on their respective journey to state championship games but didn’t find much competition with the rest of the league. However, the other seven teams traded wins and great games of their own. Webb City is the top dog, with Carthage and Joplin waiting in the wings. Can CJ, Ozark and Willard gain ground? What will the rest of the league look like? Here are some things to know about the Central Ozark Conference.
• Webb City is LOADED at skill positions
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Webb City is really good. Kansas State bound Devrin Weathers. Arkansas State bound Gary Clinton. Missouri Southern Baseball commits Cole Gayman and Treghan Parker. Returning starting QB Eli Goddard tossed 13 touchdowns with zero interceptions last year. And, a host of underclassmen that are also extremely talented. We’ll get to Webb City’s line a little later, but this cast of skill position guys is impressive. With Terrell Kabala gone, Weathers will shoulder a larger workload after splitting carries with standouts Kabala and Durand Henderson (Northwest Missouri State) the last couple years. Clinton was courted by several Power 5 programs and gives the Cardinals a tight end that is extremely effective as a blocker, but has a big, athletic frame that makes him a unique target in the passing game. The Cardinals will again be explosive offensively.
• Pat Carlton is back for an encore
Carlton is the reigning Class 5 Offensive Player of the Year and is coming off leading Carthage to its first state championship in program history. Over the last three years, he’s seen a revolving door of weapons and that won’t change this year with his top three targets from last year gone. However, one thing Carthage has made a habit of is reloading offensively and not rebuilding. Seniors Justin Sneed and Silas Templeman will become go-to perimeter threats. Sophomore Hudson Moore could also show his promise as a future star. Junior Zach Lansford will likely see plenty of carries. The Tigers have averaged at least 33 PPG every season since 2010. That won’t change this fall.
• Meet Nathan Glades…
I think Joplin running back Nathan Glades will end up getting a Division I offer; that’s how incredible his talent is. Two years ago Isaiah Davis was very vocal about how productive Glades is in all phases of the game. Now, with Davis gone, Glades will have a chance to recreate that production. It’ll look a little different. He can run between the tackles like Davis, but he’s also great off tackle and in the receiving game. Joplin lost a lot, but there is plenty of talent returning, especially on the offensive line, to help support a monster season for Glades and the Eagles.
• Big-Time Hogs everywhere
This is one of the deepest offensive line groups the COC has ever seen. For the first time I ever remember seeing, the league returns four of its five All-COC selections on the first team – Aiden Logan (Carthage), Alex Curry (Joplin), and Zetthew Meister & Grant Goltra (Webb City). All four of them are D1 talents. Clinton is the returning first-teamer at tight end. The second-team offense returns Neosho senior Kaden Decker and Webb City junior Buddy Belcher. A pair of 6-foot-3, 275-pound third-team linemen in Tyke Wells (Branson) and Sergio Pineiro (Joplin) also return. Meanwhile Jesse Cassatt (Carl Junction) and Donovan Watkins were All-COC defensive linemen. The skill position guys will get all the press, but understand it’s because there are several extremely experienced and talented offensive line units in the league.
• What to expect from Nixa under Perry
John Perry isn’t new to this with nearly two decades of head coaching experience. At his most recent stop, Pearl HS (MS), Perry ran balanced and explosive offenses and won a ton of games, including an undefeated state championship in 2017. He returns some talent in seniors Reid Potts and Steven Ward. While he didn’t catch a break with COVID-19 making it even more difficult to establish his foundation, Perry did catch a potential break in scheduling, at least early. A trip to Branson and a visit to Joplin is followed by going to Willard, hosting Republic and Neosho and then visiting rival Ozark. Nixa will have a chance to get comfortable before wrapping up the season by going to Webb City, hosting Carl Junction and ending the season at Carthage.
• Carl Junction will get back to Buckmaster Ball
Coach Buckmaster started his career at Carl Junction with 49 wins. The Bulldogs were, without question, the second-best Class 4 program in Missouri at that time. But, CJ has seen more losses in the last two seasons (12) than in the previous five combined (10) and of those 10 losses, seven came against Webb City. But, that rough patch is over for the Bulldogs. CJ returns its most talented roster in the last few seasons, with decent depth on both sides of the ball. Maybe the biggest key is the return of quarterback Alex Baker. The senior is one of the most physically-gifted athletes in the COC, also standing out in basketball and baseball throughout his career. Drew Patterson played extremely well filling in for Baker last season. Both are talented enough to win the job, split reps or make a major impact at another position. With Cole Stewart and Noah Southern leading a talented group of playmakers, as well as Brady Sims being both a threat in the running and passing game, look for this CJ offensive to look more like the groups that averaged 40 PPG from 2013-17.
• New faces, same game for Willard
Brock Roweton has been doing his thing in Willard for years and it’s no secret that he loves his physical football, especially when he has a deep threat to keep safeties out of the box. Well, this will be a typical Roweton team. The Tigers are big up front and despite losing standouts Garrett Rice and Maurice Grayer, Willard has two guys ready to step right in. Marshall Swadley will be one of the most productive two-way guys in the COC. He’s also one of the most physically imposing backs in the league at 230 pounds. He rushed for more than 600 yards as a junior splitting carries, he could see 25-plus touches regularly this fall. As for the outside threat, meet Eli Aye. As a junior he averaged 20 yards per catch. Because of how solid Willard should be in the running game, Aye should see plenty of 1-on-1 battles, which he’ll typically win. Willard has been sneakily consistent in the COC, averaging six wins per year. Keep in mind, this is a league that has routinely had some of the top teams in Missouri annually. Four of their six losses last year came to teams that played for state championships, the other two came by a total of eight points. They were a different district away from being a quarterfinal team. It’ll be interesting to see how they regroup in 2020.
• Branson, Neosho, Ozark and Republic have much to prove
This quartet had a mixed bag in 2019. Branson scored 42 and beat Republic in Week 1 but scored just 51 points of its next eight games, a winless stretch, before rebounding to beat Republic in districts. Neosho beat Branson and Republic by a touchdown each but were held to just one score in six of its other eight games. Ozark topped Neosho, Branson, Nixa and Republic by a combined 23 points, but lost its final three regular season games before falling to Nixa in districts (40-12). And Republic won just two games but managed to beat Willard and Nixa. The Tigers also lost four games by a single possession. That’s my long way of saying there’s a ton of parity in the COC. All four of these programs have seen success recently. Neosho won eight games and played for a district title in 2018. Ozark played for district titles in 2017 and 2016. Republic and Branson were both competitive at different times throughout the decade. Look for all four to have resurgent seasons, even if the win total doesn’t necessarily reflect it… Anthony Hays loves to sling the ball around, which he proved in some great seasons at Parkview, and now the Pirates have some experience at quarterback and one of the top deep threats in the league in 6-foot-3 senior Brady Blackwell. With 15 total starters back, the Pirates expect to make some noise… Neosho will get back to being physical and calculated, which has been a staple under Leon Miller… Chad Depee returns an interesting group. The Tigers will be much improved defensively, which has been Depee’s calling card as a coach. With quarterback Cannon Cox back, as well as backs Ethan Pritchard and Ty Bolin, Ozark will be able to sustain drives and establish an old school brand of football. This could be the group that gets the Tigers back on the map… Republic is in a peculiar position. Dustin Baldwin has cycled through his first graduating class which is huge. This is also a group that went 8-1 at the JV level and 7-2 at the freshman level. Baldwin can always make it work offensively, but returning seven starters defensively, led by the defensive line trio of D’Andrea, Bryce Messier and Micah Erickson, will make things more solidified on that side of the ball.
Offensive POY Candidates
1. Senior QB Pat Carlton, Carthage
2. Senior RB Devrin Weathers, Webb City
3. Senior RB Nathan Glades, Joplin
4. Senior QB Alex Baker, Carl Junction
5. Senior RB Marshall Swadley, Willard
Defensive POY Candidates
1. Senior DB Treghan Parker, Webb City
2. Senior DE Jesse Cassatt, Carl Junction
3. Senior DB DJ Witt, Carthage
4. Senior DB Cannon Cox, Ozark
5. Senior LB Noah Southern, Carl Junction
1. Senior ATH Josh Sterling, Republic
2. Junior DT Donovahn Watkins, Joplin
3. Junior LB Colton Cooper, Branson
4. Junior ATH Avery Voysey, Ozark
5. Sophomore WR Austin McCracken, Nixa