By Pat Dailey (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Willow Springs made quite a splash early this summer by bringing back one of its own with the hiring of Joel Wyatt as the Bears’ head coach.
Wyatt is a Willow Springs grad and was the Bears’ offensive coordinator for seven years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He left southwest Missouri in 2010 to take the head coaching job at Malden and went on to coach at Kennett from 2017-2020.
Wyatt was a big winner in the Bootheel. In 11 years, his Malden and Kennett teams combined for six district championships, four conference titles, two state quarterfinal berths and one state semifinal appearance. Kennett was undefeated in four seasons in the SEMO Conference on Wyatt’s watch.
“I didn’t know a soul when we went to Malden,” Wyatt said. “I wanted to branch out and get out of my comfort zone by being a head coach. It was the best decision I ever made. The people at Malden were good to me. I landed in a good position for my first head coaching job. Then, I moved 25 miles south to Kennett. We had a successful run there. Both stops were full of a lot of great memories.
“Family brought me back home,” he added. “This is coming full circle for me, back to where I grew up and graduated. It’s been a breath of fresh air, seeing old faces and some of the players I coached before, now I’m coaching their kids. It shows how time flies.”
Wyatt inherits a Willow Springs program looking to return to its glory days. The Bears were 8-22 over the past three seasons, a stretch that includes two one-win seasons.
Wyatt has proven he can revitalize a program. Prior to his arrival at Kennett, the Indians had not won a district championship since 1984 and had not won a conference title since 1964.
“Like I tell the kids, there is no big secret. It’s not real complicated. But it’s hard work,” Wyatt said about turning a program around. “I’m a big believer in outworking your opponent. I have the no days off mentality in the weight room, that’s the foundation.”
Willow Springs struggled over the summer with the numbers game.
“We have yet to hit the 30 mark in our contact days of summer,” Wyatt said, referring to participating players. “Depth is going to be an issue. We are very thin at some positions. We have a core group of 20-22 kids who have done everything I’ve asked weight room-wise and football-wise.
“We will have a lot of two-way starters who are going to be big contributors,” he added. “They have been so coachable while accepting me. It’s a great bunch of kids to be around. They’ve been super. We have the right kind of kids buying in. We’ve just got to get a few more of them.”
Wyatt added any prospective players who are late arrivals face long odds.
“I’m not going to be the coach who, when a guy who hasn’t done anything all summer shows up in August, everything is fine and dandy,” he said.
Willow Springs’ offense will revolve around running backs Gavin Ferguson and Nate McDaniel, wide receivers Brenden Ferguson and Ryan Koehler and offensive linemen Micah Setina, Landon Crudgington, Warren Ennis and Scooter Osborn.
“Gavin is probably the fastest kid on our team. He’s only 170 pounds. But he’s a tough, physical, hard-nosed kid,” Wyatt said. “He’s a combination of an inside and outside guy. Nate is similar to Gavin. He has quick feet.”
Stetina was named to the All-South Central Association Second-Team as a junior last year and Crudgington received honorable mention recognition.
“We think our offensive line is going to be a strength,” Wyatt said. “People that knew me when I was an offensive coordinator know I’m a run-first guy. Everybody says they want to be balanced. But we’re definitely going to run the football more than throw it.”
Willow Springs’ defense includes Gavin Ferguson and Stetina at linebacker and Osborn, Gennadiy Duko, Simeon Dashkevich and Crudgington along the defensive line.
Osborn received All-SCA honorable mention recognition as a sophomore last year.
“We’re going to be an aggressive defense,” Wyatt said. “Our base defense will be a stack defense. We’re not going to wow you when we get off the bus. We might lead Class 2 in 150-pounders. We’re going to be aggressive to the football. These kids are not afraid of contact.”
For the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Crudgington, this will be his first season seeing significant action on both offense and defense.
“Crudgington is going to be called upon to play both sides of the ball,” Wyatt said. “He didn’t play much defense last year. He definitely will this year. I’ve been impressed with him. Everybody told me when I got here he started to figure things out at the end of last year. You can see in his body language he is getting more confident.”
Wyatt is eager to make Willow Springs a winner again. During his tenure as the Bears’ offensive coordinator, they enjoyed one stretch in which they captured five straight district championships.
“That’s where we want to get,” he said. “We had a lot of great teams in the mid- and late 1990s and in the early 2000s. Willow Springs is a great sports-minded community that will get behind you. If we can turn the corner, this place will catch fire. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”