By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The impacts of a COVID year hit few programs harder than Mt. Vernon.
After reloading yet again, Tom Cox and the Mountaineers jumped out to a 4-0 start before COVID and injuries took over. Mt. Vernon still rebounded to advance to the district championship game.
Now, the ‘Neers will again look to reload with several new faces that were able to gain some experience down the stretch.
The 2020 season was unlike any I have ever encountered in my 38 years of coaching,” said Cox. “We started three freshmen and several sophomores in the district championship game due to COVID and injuries. I was extremely proud of our team and how they competed that night. It would have been so easy for us to have laid down in that situation, but it gave us great hope going into the off-season to have played so well and so hard against a program like Cassville.
“On the other hand, it showed us that we are not invincible. None of the players on our roster had ever lost many games at the varsity level. It reminded us that we must work hard in the offseason and victory must be earned. In close games that we have always won in the past, we came up short. You can learn so much more in defeat than in victory. The key for us will be using that knowledge to get back to where we want to be, playing for conference and district championships and playing deep into the postseason.”
Senior lineman Dominic Dawson (6-2, 255lbs) returns as a three-year starter and will be one of the premiere linemen in the Big 8. He’ll be joined by classmate Isaac Burks (6-2, 265lbs).
Both were All-Big 8 and All-Area picks last year. As two-way starters, they’ll be looked upon to lead Mt. Vernon on both sides of the ball.
“Dominic and Isaac are both dominant players,” said Cox. “They are the linchpins of our defense. Both will be very difficult to block and both are extremely athletic. Dominic will also lead our offensive line from the center position. We hope to be able to play Isaac predominantly on the defensive side and only use him sparingly on offense.”
Senior Ben McKay (6-0, 275lbs), junior Patrick Spangler and sophomores Braxton Craig (6-0, 275lbs) & Ty Weaver (6-0, 225lbs) will all figure into the offensive and defensive line equation.
McKay and Weaver started last year on the offensive line, while Spangler played meaningful reps.
Junior Alex Watts had several carries as a sophomore and will look to see a majority of the snaps at running back. Senior Alvin Reid and sophomore Cody Downing are also in the mix. Sophomore Jayse Sharif (6-1, 225lbs) is the running back of the future but could push for carries this fall.
Juniors Aiden Morton, Trey Hill, Caleb Rinker, Trevon Boyd and Clayton Turner, as well as sophomore Layton Pendleton are in a crowded battle at wide receiver.
As for who will trigger the offense, Mt. Vernon will be looking at its third starting quarterback in the last three years. All signs were pointed at Dominick Harris taking over that role, but a family move has the battle wide open.
Right now the competition is between juniors Ashton Cottrell and Aiden Morton, sophomore Ethan Hoff and freshman Gavin Johnston.
Cox believes the competition has brought out the best in all four players. Regardless of who wins the battle, he’s confident the starter will be ready to win games.
“As of this moment, we have a good battle going on between sophomore Ethan Hoff and junior Ashton Cottrell,” said Cox. “Freshman Gavin Johnston has also looked good early. Whomever we trot out there Aug. 27 against the Wildcats will be ready to lead this team.”
Defensively it’ll be Dawson, Burks and Reid making up one of the most experienced and explosive defensive lines in the league. Junior Clayton Turner and the aforementioned Downing saw significant reps last year at linebacker.
Turner is also an All-Area punter.
Hill & Rinker will also see reps at linebacker. Morton, Hoff, Watts, Pendleton and Boyd will make up the secondary.
Cox has also seen some great things from other newcomers.
Juniors Payton West (6-2, 215lbs) & Nydorweis Washington (6-0, 255lbs), as well as sophomore Kade Jenkins (5-11, 220lbs) will provide depth along the line.
Juniors Alan Jimenez and Wyatte Fowler could see reps in the secondary and linebacking corps respectively. A host of sophomores could see valuable roles on both sides of the ball, especially at the defensive skill positions.
The Big 8 East saw significant growth last year with Rogersville, Hollister, Marshfield and Catholic – the entire COC Small crew – showing very well in 2020.
Mt. Vernon getting back to the top of the league won’t be easy and Cox knows much of it could hinge on how quickly his inexperienced newcomers can acclimate to Friday Night Lights.
“Our young guys have to step up and mature in a hurry,” said Cox. “I told them that there is a great opportunity for them this year, but with that opportunity comes great responsibility. We have high expectations here at Mt. Vernon. We strive for a level of excellence that we fell short of last year.
“Our summer is busy gaining valuable experience. You hear a million times from every coach everywhere, but it is especially true for us this year; we must remain healthy. And something I never thought I would say in my career, we must stay quarantine free. Our guys have to be smart on and off the field. It’s a little scary to have such a young team, but it’s very exciting as well. I can’t wait.”
Mt. Vernon will host a jamboree with Bolivar, McDonald County and Neosho on Aug. 20. One week later the ‘Neers will travel to Cassville for the 2021 season opener before returning home on Sep. 3 to host East Newton.