By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
In a league filled with Class 5-6 programs, Carl Junction isn’t a program that can be evaluated by its regular season record.
Coming off a 6-6 season that saw the Bulldogs play for a Class 4 district championship, CJ will look to get over the hump in big games. Of those six losses, four came by two scores or less and two came by one point each in the first four weeks.
After a 1-4 start, Carl Junction won five of its final six games before a season-ending loss to state-ranked West Plains.
“It takes all 11 players on each side of the ball playing together (to win close games),” said Doug Buckmaster. “We had some players who maybe were not playing up to our expectations of what we expected of them the first half of the season.”
Buckmaster’s ninth season will see the Bulldogs return just eight starters. However, the goal is for 2021 to be a reload and not a rebuild.
Seniors Darris Hill (6-2, 265lbs) and Kameron Bennett (6-3, 260lbs), as well as junior Ross Craig (5-10, 270lbs), give Carl Junction 60 percent of its starting offensive line back.
They’re the only returning starters for the unit, but several talented newcomers will join them this fall.
Senior Michel Phipps, juniors Josh McDermott, Gaige Carson (6-3, 240lbs) and Donnie Keith (6-1, 290lbs), as well as sophomore Brennan Carey, will also compete for reps on the offensive line.
Senior Kyler Perry is expected to take over for standout Alex Baker at quarterback, but is engaged in a position battle with junior Nathan Planchon and sophomore Dexter Merrell.
Perry demonstrated his acumen last season in varsity action, passing for 173 yards and a touchdown against Branson.
“Kyler is definitely a dual threat quarterback and he did some great things when Alex was injured in the 1st half at Branson and we were down 21-0,” said Buckmaster. “In the 2nd half Kyler brought us all the way back and had an opportunity to tie with less than a minute in the game and we missed a P.A.T. We saw that night what he was capable of doing and he made things happen in JV games and we had a great JV season.
“If you want to play quarterback at CJ you have to meet expectations on and off the field. Nathan Planchon and Dexter Merrell also are what I consider very good dual threat QBs and all three have been competing this summer. We will see who plays well and meets these expectations.”
There are a host of receivers and running backs that could see touches this fall.
Seniors Jordan Woodruff, Shane Diskin, Dalton Mills, Parker Epperson and Eli Haynes – juniors Ayden Bard and Drew Massey – as well as sophomore Kyler Stewart are all in the mix at receiver.
It is also possible that the two quarterbacks that don’t start will see reps at receiver.
Senior Josh Cory, juniors Chance Benford, Arlen Wakefield, Braxton Dodds and Mario Thomas, as well as several sophomores are in a position battle at running back.
Defensively, Carl Junction returns five starters with the strength being in the box.
Senior Michael Phipps and junior Donnie Keith will return to their interior line spots and senior Josh Cory will again be at defensive end. Senior Carter Kennedy (70 tackles in 2020) and junior Braxton Dodds will retain their spots at outside linebacker.
Junior Cayden Bollinger and sophomores Brennan Carey and Aiden Beachner will see action on the defensive line. Senior Dalton Mills, junior Mario Thomas and sophomores Jonny Starks and Bentley Rowden will see time at linebacker.
The secondary – which will be entirely new this year – could see as many as eight players platooning.
Senior Shane Diskin, juniors Arlen Wakefield and Chance Benford, and freshman Tony Stewart could see time at either safety spot. Juniors Ayden Bard and Drew Massey, as well as sophomores Kyler Stewart and Dexter Merrell will hold down the corner spots.
Carl Junction will have some growing pains as players adjust to now having significant roles under Friday night lights.
This is still a program with winning seasons in six of the last eight years, five of which concluded with at least nine wins. The Bulldogs always expect themselves to be in the thick of the Class 4 race come October.
“This is the youngest and most inexperienced team in what will be my ninth year at CJ,” said Buckmaster. “In saying that we do have some talented players and we will have to see how well we bond as a team as we move through the rest of the summer, pre-season practice and the first half of the season. No matter how it plays out this season the future is very bright at CJ.”
Carl Junction will open the 2021 season on Aug. 27 by hosting Willard. The Bulldogs will visit Carthage on Sep. 3 and Joplin on Sep. 17 before hosting Webb City on Sep. 24.