When the Neosho Wildcats and the Ozark Tigers line up under the Friday Night Lights at Bob Anderson Stadium, it will be no surprise what these Central Ozark Conference foes want to do.
They will both try and control the line of scrimmage and impose their will on the other team.
If you like physical football, Friday night’s game guarantees to be an old-fashioned snot knocker.
“Their style is a lot like ours,” Neosho head coach Leon Miller said. “It’s going to be a tough, physical football game and it’s going to be a good opener. We’re looking forward to the challenge. Our kids, they’re working hard and we’re ready to go. We’re ready for the season to start.”
Miller — a veteran coach in Southeast Kansas football, for example head coach of a 1994 state championship team at Frontenac — begins his second season at Neosho and teams and players generally improve in their second seasons.
“There’s familiarity,” Miller said. “Me with the kids, the kids with our system, we’ve had all offseason to work together and all that. It’s been smoother as far as that goes and these kids, the bulk of them have worked very, very hard in the offseason. They’ve done the things all winter, all spring, this summer, and we’ve had a very productive summer. The commitment level was much better than the previous summer. That’s all going to pay off and these kids are confident in what they’re doing now.”
The vast majority of the Neosho players this season have one thing these same players mostly did not have entering last season — experience.
“We played a lot of sophomores and a lot of juniors last year,” Miller said. “Those kids have been under the fire and pressure. They know how to handle it. They’re going to be pumped up and ready to go. It’s Friday night and the adrenaline will be flowing. Sure it will be exciting for them.
“We’ve tried to throw a lot of things at them to put them under a little bit of that (pressure). Hopefully, we’re good to go.”
The keys Friday night will be about the same they are every week.
“It’s coach talk,” Miller said, “but you’ve got to be disciplined on both sides of the ball. You’ve got to take care of the football. You’ve got to defensively guard against the big play. Make your opponent earn every thing they get. I’m sure they’re preaching the same thing over there. Football comes down to blocking and tackling a lot of times and who does a better job of that generally wins.”
Wildcat coaches have been seen wearing T-shirts reading “Lineman Lead the Way” this offseason and the Wildcats’ strength this season again will be their men upfront on both sides of the ball, especially on their offensive line.
“We’ve got experience coming back in Ryan Slade, Sean Moran, Kipp Box, Ethan White, and Hunter Box,” Miller said, “and we’ve got some kids that we feel like will give us some depth in places. A lot of those same names, Anthony Thompson and Caden Decker, just a sophomore but he’s done some good things, they’ll look to get some quality minutes. We’ve got some kids that again have put in the work and we feel confident they’re going to go out there and play hard.
“It starts with those guys upfront. Not much happens if those guys upfront aren’t battling.”
Ozark head coach Chad Depee knows what to expect from both Neosho and his team.
“They play very physical,” Depee said in the Christian County Headliner. “They were a physical team last year in Year One under (Miller) and I’m sure they’ve amped it up even more this year. They’ve got tough kids. We’ve got to be ready to take that battle on.
“It’s going to be two teams who are going to try to run the ball at each other. Don’t get too comfortable in the stands. The game might be over with fast. The clock may be running a lot.”
That CC Headliner article called Neosho’s offensive linemen the Wildcats’ “stars.”
The Wildcats have been having an ongoing healthy competition for the starting quarterback job between juniors Gage Kelley and Quincey Willis. Kelley and Willis both have the ability to play other positions in the offense, last season playing wide receiver and running back, respectively.
“I haven’t even told the team yet (who’s the starting quarterback),” Miller said after Wednesday night’s practice. “It’s been a good, healthy competition. We feel like we’ve got two guys in Gage Kelley and Quincey Willis, we’ve split reps with them, they both do really good things. We feel like it’s a good situation to where no matter who the starter is, we feel like the other can come in there if something happens. We hope it doesn’t, but if one of them is struggling, the other can come in. We feel good about that situation.”
At the college and professional levels especially, there’s an old saying that if you have two quarterbacks, you have none.
At the high school level, the Lamar Tigers — owners of the longest winning streak in high school football in America (49 games) — have proven that old adage wrong with their offensive system.
“They’re both very athletic,” Miller said of Kelley and Willis. “They’re both effective running the football and they’re effective throwing the ball … within reason. They’re both not gunslingers, but with what we do, we don’t need gunslingers. We need people that when we go that route (passing), they can get the ball there.
“Again, it’s been very positive all summer and all preseason with those two. They talk a lot and they’ve taken on the challenge, and they support each other. Nice thing about it, they’re both athletic and they can both help us in another area.”
Senior running back Cade Lyerla will be the featured back this season for the Wildcats and Ozark will call on No. 24, senior running back Ethan Sandoval, for a lot of the carries. Sandoval averaged over five yards per carry last season en route to a 1,000-yard season.
Defensively, among several others, Neosho returns senior linebacker Tre Letts, who’s been starting at linebacker since his sophomore season. Letts can also be a dangerous target in the passing game. NCAA Division II football program Central Missouri offered Letts over the summer.
Neosho and Ozark faced each other in Week 2 last season — a game Ozark won 38-7 as the Tigers scored on six straight possessions after a turnover on their first possession.
ASH GROVE at DIAMOND
The Diamond Wildcats host the Ash Grove Pirates for both schools’ inaugural Southwest Conference game. Former Spring River Valley Conference schools Diamond, Lockwood, Miller, Pierce City, and Sarcoxie joined forces with former Mid-Lakes schools Ash Grove, Marionville, and Pleasant Hope to form hopefully a more stable conference (especially football).
Diamond features a new head coach in Mac Whitehead, the Wildcats’ third head coach in as many seasons, and the Wildcats come off a winless season last season in which opponents blanked Diamond in 6 out of 10 games.
Meanwhile, Ash Grove only returns two starters in senior linemen Deaven Phipps and Miles Nentrup. Defense has been Ash Grove’s strength the last couple seasons.
EAST NEWTON at HOLLISTER
The East Newton Patriots return eight starters from last season and look to give second year head coach Broc Wolfe his first win as head coach of the Patriots.
Senior running back and defensive back Brett Pendergraft will be one to watch for the Patriots, who will officially unveil their new offense for the first time.
Hollister struggled to a 2-8 campaign last season and the Tigers have a new head coach in former Mountain Grove coach Rich Adkins. Former Hollister coach Jacob Hamon became the former head coach by taking a job at Branson.
The Tigers have a young football team, and the Patriots have the advantage in experience. It might be a great time for the Patriots to end their losing streak, welcoming Hollister to the Big 8.
McDONALD COUNTY at MARSHFIELD
In his first year as head coach, former Monett assistant Kellen Hoover took McDonald County from no wins in 2016 to five wins and a winning regular season.
Some key players graduated but the Mustangs do have skill player Oakley Roessler (a switch from receiver to running back) and all-Big 8 first team offensive lineman Elliott Wolfe back.
Marshfield head coach Cody Bull returns for his second season, as well, and the Blue Jays look to better their 2-8 mark from last season. Offensively, senior quarterback Brock Utecht and senior fullback Trenton Kanengieter give Marshfield a pair of weapons with much experience, Utecht entering his third season behind center.
McDonald County and new addition Marshfield are not only Big 8 foes but Class 4, District 6, giving this opening game a double impact.
McDonald County and Marshfield played each other in Week 2 last season, and the Mustangs came away with a 14-7 win in Anderson. At the time, McDonald County broke a 16-game losing streak.
SENECA at SPRINGFIELD CATHOLIC
The Indians and the Fighting Irish feature two of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the area in senior Gavin Clouse and senior Tyson Riley, respectively.
Clouse tallied nearly 1,700 yards of offense last season for the 9-2 Indians — improved by six wins in head coach Ryan McFarland’s second season — with 785 yards and 12 touchdowns passing and 953 yards and 13 TDs rushing.
Riley totaled 1,400 yards of total offense and 23 scores, while on the defensive side, he made 50 tackles and picked off five passes.
Of course, line play both offensively and defensively will factor in to which team begins their season 1-0 and which team begins 0-1.
Branson at Republic
Carl Junction at Webb City
Cassville at Aurora
Houston at Sarcoxie
Joplin at Willard
Lamar at Logan-Rogersville
Lockwood at Pierce City
Marionville at Pleasant Hope
Miller at Stockton
Monett at Mount Vernon
Nevada at Reeds Spring
Nixa at Carthage