By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
In the team’s three wins last fall, El Dorado Springs averaged 48 points per game – but in their seven losses the Bulldogs allowed an average of 39.
Head coach Kelley Beckner was just glad to have a season and said it was tough getting back into a routine after time off last summer.
“We were in a lot of ball games last year, we just couldn’t ever put four quarters together,” he said. “When one of the phases of the game struggled for us the other one was doing pretty good. Defense would do alright and offense would struggle. We could never string it all together. The coaches and I were just talking the other day about how many of the games all year long we were in it or winning at halftime.”
Beckner’s staff has restructured practice this year in an attempt to simulate a short halftime break and then finishing afterwards. The hope is to avoid outcomes like a nine-point loss to a 10-win Adrian team and a five-point loss to a 10-win Butler. The Bulldogs also lost by 17 against a nine-win Buffalo team.
El Dorado Springs must replace 13 seniors from last year’s team, including tight end Gaven Morgan, a second team All-State selection, and Trey Graves, a third team All-State linebacker.
The Bulldogs do return several players who earned All-Conference honors in the Ozark Highlands Conference. Junior Montana Hacker was a first team offensive lineman, senior running back Chance Esparza was a second team pick, senior Payton Green was a first team defensive lineman, junior Jake Cooper was a second team defensive lineman and sophomore Landon Murry was an honorable mention kick returner.
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“Landon Murry is going to take over as a major factor on offense and defense,” Beckner said. “He’s a really good playmaker and there are going to be some big plays happen with Landon Murry’s name called out. Payton Green is one I’m really excited about. As a sophomore two years ago he played linebacker and he moved positions last year and became one of the best defensive ends in our conference. I’m really anxious to see him perform, he’s receiving college interest so I’m anxious for him to keep growing off what he built on last year.”
The team’s offense returns five starters in Green, Cooper, Hacker, Murry and Esparza. Senior Preston Smith rotated in on certain formations and is vying for time at running back. Junior Aiden Walker made some big catches as a receiver and has put on weight while maintaining his speed this offseason. Sophomore Rees McCullough started at center in the final game against Lamar and is competing for the starting spot this year.
“We’re actually set up very well on the offensive line for the next couple years to only lose one or two each year and be able to replace them,” Beckner said. “It’s a good thing to have that depth within the classes.”
Senior Logan Speer and sophomore Riley Massie are in the mix to take over at quarterback, with Smith, Esparza and Murry battling at running back. Senior Devon Salazar could also contribute.
Defensively Beckner expects Green to be a dominating force up front. He’ll be joined by Cooper, who played both defensive end and tackle last year and is the strongest player on the team with a 500-pound squat. Hacker should start up front and Smith, Murry and senior Jace Shinn also return. There’s a three-way battle for two inside linebacker spots with senior Michael Hart, sophomore Landon Murry and Shinn in the mix. There’s also a three-way battle for the outside linebacker spots that includes junior Aiden Walker, junior Austin Hart and freshman Russel Ferguson. Salazar, Massie and junior Wyatt Vangordon are all competing for spots in the defensive backfield.
“We lost a lot of athletic ability last year,” Beckner said. “We had athletes everywhere. Now this year we don’t have quite the depth of athletes and our athletes are more those linebacker, running back type guys so we are going to be a little different than the spread we were last year. We’re going to feed into our strengths offensively and defensively and we’re going to simplify things. We’re going to keep it as simple as possible and just do it really, really well.”
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Beckner said the team’s biggest strength is its cohesion. The coaching staff has already made a few position changes and players were willing to move to help the team. There’s been a culture change in the weight room, too.
“Not saying the previous two years weren’t that way but it’s different this year,” he said. “It’s a good thing to see as a coach.”
The Bulldogs won’t play their annual Cedar County Bowl against Stockton after the Tigers switched conferences. Beckner hopes to resume that game in a year or two. El Dorado Springs has also added Forsyth as a road game in week one, and Beckner hopes to play Warsaw again after that game was canceled last fall.
“Our schedule last year turned out to be a pretty dang good schedule,” he said. “Six district champions, eight teams that played in district championships, that’s a tough schedule.”
The Bulldogs will head to Sarcoxie for their jamboree.
“I’m excited for this crew,” Beckner said. “I feel like the culture and the mindset is a lot more aligned with where we’re going and what we’re trying to do as a program. You can tell it’s growing and the progression is there and I’m real excited for it. The community support has been great, administration’s been great, I’m just anxious for it to all come together on Friday nights.”