By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Ozark Conference looks much different than it did a half decade ago. For a while, the league was trending large with Joplin and Kickapoo being in Class 6 and several Class 5 programs. It is projected that six of the league’s 10 teams will be in Class 4. Camdenton and West Plains have traded the last two conference championships. Joplin, Glendale and Kickapoo won the three before that. In fact, since 2007, nine different teams have won an OC title, six of which have won two, but nobody has won more than two in that time. Absolute parity. Few leagues have more parity top to bottom than the OC and nobody has more offense. This will be another wild year in the league, here’s what you need to know.
• Camdenton and West Plains on another collision course
At this point they’re like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s and there will be no love lost this fall. They’ve split the last two conference championships and really their meetings for the better part of a decade have been absolute wars.
2019 – Camdeton wins 37-34 (OT)
2018 – West Plains wins 41-7
2017 – West Plains wins 25-24
2016 – West Plains wins 29-28 (playoffs)
2016 – Camdenton wins 54-41 (regular season)
2015 – West Plains wins 13-12
2014 – West Plains wins 19-13
2013 – Camdenton wins 35-13
The Zizzers have had the upper hand lately, but it is still Camdenton that has four district championships in the last eight years. This year it is again possible that the winner of this head-to-head tilt will walk away with a second Ozark Conference crown in the last three years. Just understand they’re coming from two very different places. Camdenton loses several big names from last year’s group and will have to reload behind all-state stud receiver Cooper Ezard. The Lakers must replace 10 All-Conference selections outside of him, including the league’s offensive and defensive POYs. The new style of Shore Ball has been extremely effective. We’ve all noticed the Lakers averaging 47 PPG over the last two seasons, but what sometimes gets lost is the fact that Camdenton’s defense has also greatly improved on the scoreboard and in the turnover department. The Lakers have also not lost a regular season home game since 2017. This will be a challenging task for Jeff Shore, but these are typically the kinds of challenges he prefers… Meanwhile in West Plains, expectations are insanely high. Yes, Brayden Lidgard and Connor Rackley are gone, but the Zizzers return five All-Conference performers, including Defensive POY favorite Titus Seley and one of the biggest and most physical fronts on both sides of the ball, led by D1 prospect Jaylon James (6-foot-6, 315lbs) and Sebastian Rogers (5-foot-11, 275lbs). Matt Perkins has also proven to be innovative offensively. He was one of the first guys to embrace pistol formations while at Willow Springs. Last year he took a group with a completely new offensive line and averaged 43 PPG, the programs second-highest output in decades. The Zizzers also haven’t lost a regular season home game since 2017 and they host Camdenton this fall. Maybe the most intriguing part for Camdenton and West Plains is where they end up in the district. Neither of them is scared of Webb City, but both would prefer to not share a district with the Cardinals. If Camdenton goes north and West Plains goes to the Bootheel, things could get extremely interesting. If somehow, they’re all lumped together again, they’ll both likely have a trip to Cardinal Stadium due to Webb City having more Class 5 games on its schedule.
• Lebanon still the most consistent team in the OC
No program in the OC has maintained its consistency at the top of the league like Lebanon. The Jackets have been .500 or better in 13 of the last 14 seasons, with a pair of OC titles. Lebanon loses a great senior class that had a pair of quarterfinal appearances and a district championship loss in the last three seasons. Replacing that class will be tough, but there is a silver lining with Lebanon going 23-2 at the JV level over the last three seasons; this group has proven they can win. Returning All-OC seniors Isaac Ledbetter and Drew McBride is huge. Maybe the biggest hurdle for Lebanon will be scheduling. Will Christian and company will take trips to West Plains and to Camdenton on back-to-back Fridays to open October. The Jackets could very well be undefeated entering October. Those two games will mean everything in their quest for a conference title and district seeding.
• Can Bolivar change the power structure
Bolivar’s 2019 campaign must’ve felt like a rock band tour with trips to MV-BT/Liberty (129 miles), Marshall (114 miles), Kansas City (137 miles) and Cape Girardeau (284 miles). But not even all those miles could keep the Liberators from an unbeaten regular season and deep playoff run. The Libs joining the OC stabilizes the league with 10 conference members and add another quality opponent. The interesting part will be how quickly can they compete? In recent years we’ve seen Carl Junction and Joplin join the COC and have instant success. Bolivar is on that same level. They also graduate some big names, but OC fans will quickly learn why Andrew Bunn, Bo Banner, Jack Roweton and Parker Erickson are all three-year starters. Keep in mind that quartet was part of a group that handled West Plains 36-21 last year. The biggest key with Bolivar is how their depth is impacted against bigger teams that generally platoon. The Libs have won at least nine games in six of the last 10 years. This is an elite program in the area and an excellent addition to the OC. And, this is yet another program with a history of explosive offense, averaging 46 PPG in 2019 and 36 PPG or more in nine of the last 11 seasons. They’ll fit right in.
• Rolla and Waynesville looking to make a jump
These are two interesting programs in the league. Rolla won a district championship in 2017 and nearly upset perennial power Helias in last year’s playoffs. Jon Franks has done a tremendous job getting things rolling for the Bulldogs. While they do return just 10 total starters, the difference between good programs and great programs is learning how to sustain success. Rolla has taken steps towards that under Franks, this season will be pivotal in seeing in the Dogs can take the next step towards the upper echelon of the league. Returning All-OC defensive back Isaac Hunter is a good start… Waynesville burst onto the season last year with a 7-4 season, this after winning seven total games from 2015-2018. The Tigers also won a playoff game and proved that the Joe Haynes foundation is clearly set. It’s already been announced that Waynesville won’t play in Week 1 due to COVID-19 concerns, but when the Tigers do hit the field, they’ll be a dark horse in the OC. Waynesville is on the verge of challenging for a conference championship. Shen Butler-Lawson is gone, but three-year starting quarterback Michael Lewis and an experienced offensive line, led by stud Gavin Ka’awpa, and a crew of playmakers like Eric Richardson, AJ Martin and Evander Bradford that are on the verge of breakout seasons. Richardson and Bradford would be major names in the area if they lived closer to Springfield. For the first time in a long time, Waynesville has some success and momentum to build off of. With one of the most athletic group of skill position players, look for a high-powered offense to lead the way for a group that expects to compete for championships.
• Breaking down SPS
Springfield Public Schools have struggled a little on the gridiron in recent years. Hillcrest and Parkview went a combined 3-17 last fall, Kickapoo and Glendale haven’t been over .500 since 2016. With that being said, better days are ahead. Hillcrest is still building under Justin Gerald and the immediate future is one that may still have some hurdles. With that being said, the foundation is growing, and Gerald loves what he has in the trenches. Also, keep an eye on sophomore Tyrell Hurd. He will be the next big name from the city at the running back position… Parkview has a chance to be the most improved team in the league. Junior Caden Burks is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the Ozarks and the Vikings are getting more continuity under Ben Dougherty. They’ll have a ton of athleticism at the skill positions. Look for this group to be vastly improved… Kickapoo has a massive senior class and some massive seniors in general. David Kwon and CJ Anoa’i will anchor an offensive and defensive line that’ll be much improved. The Chiefs got better as the season ended, winning three of their final five regular season games. So much experience and a better understanding of the system will be huge for the Poo. Look for them to take another step forward on both sides of the ball… Glendale is always a threat to win the league and district. Last year Glendale lost its final three regular season games before rebounding to win a district championship. Even with six losses, three came by one possession or less and the other three came against the Class 5 state champ (Carthage), as well as state-ranked Lebanon and West Plains. Much of the success of Glendale’s season was behind a much-improved defense, something that hasn’t always been present. This year’s Falcons may be even better defensively, led by Conner McTague. With Jack Clinkenbeard and Chris Floyd Jr. back, Glendale will again be explosive offensive regardless who is under center.
• Meet your QBs
So many new faces will be lining up at quarterback in the Ozark Conference. Caden Burks at Parkview, just a junior, is an elder statesman. Bolivar, Camdenton, West Plains, Kickapoo, Glendale, Rolla and Lebanon will all have new quarterbacks meaning a large role in who wins the league could very well come down to who gets adjusted to Friday Night Lights the quickest. One major role within this will be the role of coaches and coordinators getting their guys coached up, something the Mauk’s have done with quarterbacks better than anyone else in the Ozarks.
• Award Candidates
Offensive POY Candidates
1. Junior QB Caden Burks, Parkview
2. Senior WR Jack Clinkenbeard, Glendale
3. Senior WR Cooper Ezard, Camdenton
4. Senior RB Isaac Ledbetter, Lebanon
5. Senior RB Titus Seley, West Plains
Defensive POY Candidates
1. Senior LB Titus Seley, West Plains
2. Senior LB Andrew Bunn, Bolivar
3. Senior LB Drew McBride, Lebanon
4. Senior DT CJ Anoa’i, Kickapoo
5. Junior LB Conner McTague, Glendale
6. Senior NT Sebastian Rogers, West Plains
1. Junior ATH Dagen Kenslow, West Plains
2. Senior WR Anthony Green, Parkview
3. Sophomore RB Tyrell Hurd, Hillcrest
4. Junior QB Adam Hounsom, Rolla
5. Junior WR Josh Bowes, Bolivar