The Neosho Wildcats open their 2019 season on the road tonight against the Ozark Tigers.

Neosho opened its 8-4 2018 season in grand style with a 35-0 victory over the Tigers at Bob Anderson Stadium, a victory that set the tone for (most of) the rest of the season. The Wildcats’ defense allowed 224 points over 12 games (18.6 points per game) and 125 of those points came in three losses against state semifinal teams Carthage and Webb City. Neosho allowed only a single touchdown in three other victories (Branson, Nixa, and Marshfield).

Unlike last season, there was no battle for the starting quarterback position, as senior Gage Kelley rushed for 757 yards and 12 touchdowns and passed for 353 more yards and four more scores to solidify his grasp as starter.

The Wildcats graduated top ball carriers Cade Lyerla and Donnie Fox, and they used Quincey Willis, Bret Camerer, and Drayke Perry (182-pound state runner-up in wrestling last season) in the backfield last week in the jamboree at Mount Vernon.

Willis battled Kelley for the starting quarterback position last year all the way until the day of the season opener when veteran head coach Leon Miller chose Kelley. The Wildcats utilized Willis a little in various situations offensively last season, but he made his name in the defensive secondary with more than 100 tackles from his safety position.

Senior tight end and linebacker Sam Cook should be a dangerous weapon on both sides of the ball with his tall frame and his dynamic athleticism. Cook caught a TD pass from Kelley against Bolivar in the jamboree. On the defensive side, last season he formed a speedy and strong linebacker crew with Tre Letts (who signed with NCAA Division II Central Missouri) and Perry. Cook made nearly 90 tackles and wrecked the quarterback five times last season.

On the offensive line, senior Kaden Decker is the lone returning starter. The interior line play on both sides last season constituted a major strength for the Wildcats en route to the Class 4, District 6 title game against Webb City.

Ozark struggled mightily last season and finished with the least wins in the Central Ozark Conference, defeating Carl Junction 17-10 in Week 5, a victory surrounded by four losses before (Neosho 35-0, Willard 19-7, Branson 6-0, Nixa 42-10) and after (Republic 27-6, Joplin 49-9, Webb City 42-0, Carthage 56-6).

Opponents outscored Ozark 368-73 last season and that opening loss to Neosho set the tone for the rest of the season, just like it did for the Wildcats.

Senior quarterback Chance Strickler returns as the point of the Tigers’ triple-option offense and he’ll look to help Ozark dramatically improve on those paltry 73 points.

Senior receiver Jake Skaggs returns as his primary target, and that will help the Tigers. The Wildcats did surrender some big pass plays last season.

Two seasons ago, in Miller’s first season at Neosho, Ozark handed Neosho a 38-7 defeat in Ozark. The Tigers dropped to Class 5 from Class 6, so a Neosho victory would not carry as many points toward district seeding.

In other games around the COC, Carl Junction hosts Webb City, Branson hosts Republic, Joplin hosts Willard, and Carthage makes a trek to Nixa.

 

Diamond at Ash Grove

The Diamond Wildcats begin their second season under head coach Mac Whitehead with this Southwest Conference opener on the road against the Pirates.

The Wildcats hope for a repeat from Whitehead’s Diamond debut, as they opened their three-win season with a 16-0 victory at home over Ash Grove.

It’s almost a truism that athletic programs improve in a head coach’s second year, and the Wildcats certainly hope that remains true for a program that already improved by three victories last season from a winless 2017 season.

The Wildcats return a few of their skill players from last season — senior quarterback and linebacker Cameron Addington, sophomore receiver and defensive back Hunter Shallenburger, sophomore running back and linebacker Landon Clement, and senior receiver and safety Kolbe Jones.

The offensive line should receive a boost from Garden City (Kansas) transfer Tyler May, who’s listed at guard and 5-foot-9, 220 pounds.

Injuries and inexperience hammered Ash Grove last season, as the Pirates featured 16 bodies in their final game. The Pirates finished 2-8 overall with their lone victories in back-to-back weeks early against Stockton (26-14) and Pleasant Hope (15-0).

MaxPreps lists 47 players for Ash Grove this season.

New faces will be all over the field for the Pirates, since they return a meager four starters.

 

Hollister at East Newton

The East Newton Patriots last won a football game during the tail end of the Obama administration: Oct. 16, 2016, with a 56-34 victory over McDonald County at Don Johnston Stadium.

The Patriots lost their last two games that season and have stockpiled two full winless seasons since for a losing streak that stands at 22 games.

That’s 1,057 days since the last Patriots victory.

East Newton debuts a new head coach in former Cassville, Monett, and Neosho assistant Kyle Wood. Wood saw success at all three schools: two state titles at Cassville, one at Monett, and a eight-win season last year at Neosho.

The Patriots return 14 starters for Wood and their overall numbers are up. Key returners include senior quarterback Jeremiah Stewart, senior running back and leading returning tackler Samuel Stewart, senior running back Ryan Millett, senior receivers Austin Brewster and Wyatt Moore, and senior linemen Zeke Chiles and Colten Leech. Senior defensive back and wing Toukheng Xiong also makes his return to the field.

Do not be surprised if East Newton ends that losing streak this season.

Hollister finished 4-6 last season in the first year under head coach Rich Atkins, and the Tigers should be an improved team this season … but they feature only six seniors and seven returning starters. Their seven includes junior quarterback Layton Morgan, junior running back Kelby Gard, senior offensive guard Austin Hove, and senior kicker Clay Humbyrd.

 

Marshfield at McDonald County

The McDonald County Mustangs debut their all-turf playing surface against a potentially explosive Marshfield team.

The Mustangs will be developing a new identity this season after the graduation of standout running back Oakley Roessler and offensive lineman Elliot Wolfe. Roessler gained nearly 1,850 yards and scored 23 touchdowns last season, and he ran predominantly behind Wolfe. The Mustangs have featured two 1,000-yard running backs in head coach Kellen Hoover’s first two seasons.

Stepping behind center for the first time on Friday nights will be sophomore Cole Martin and he faces a Marshfield defense that made a statement in the season opener last season.

Senior linebacker Teagan Boles’ 28-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed a 41-7 victory — McDonald County’s only points came on a 80-yard Roessler touchdown run.

The Blue Jays marched on to an eight-win season and they reached the Class 4, District 6 semifinals, where they lost to Neosho.

Marshfield will also be debuting a new quarterback after the graduation of multi-year starter Brock Utecht, junior Brennan Espy. Espy’s favorite target will be familiar, very familiar, twin brother Brooks.

The Espys might like the speed of the turf in Anderson.

Marshfield and McDonald County play in Class 4, District 6 this season, lending this season opener additional weight.

 

Springfield Catholic at Seneca

The Seneca Indians took a couple steps back in 2018 — 5-6 season — following their breakout nine-win 2017 season.

Seneca played one of the toughest schedules around, though, last season, with the Indians’ six losses against opponents that combined for 52 wins: two losses against 11-win Cassville and one loss each against 12-win Mount Vernon, 12-win Lamar, 10-win Springfield Catholic, and 7-win Reeds Spring. The Indians put themselves in a 1-4 hole with their losses to Catholic, Reeds Spring, Cassville, and Lamar.

Seneca and Catholic played a shootout in the opener last season — the Fighting Irish coming out on top 50-42.

Both teams will be debuting signal callers on Friday night: Seneca head coach Ryan McFarland hands over the keys of the offense to either senior Levi Ketchum or junior Lance Stephens and Catholic junior Will Squibb takes over for Big 8 East offensive player of the year and West Point recruit Tyson Riley.

The Indians, however, do return senior Trey Wilson and Monty Mailes, who combined for over 1,500 rushing and 500 receiving yards, as well as 28 touchdowns. Senior pass catchers Preston Armstrong and Daythen Long, as well as returning all-Big 8 blocker Jakob Sampson, contribute to a veteran Seneca lineup.

This is McFarland’s first senior class to go through all four years in his program.

 

WEEK 1 GAMES

Aurora at Cassville

Carthage at Nixa

Diamond at Ash Grove

Hollister at East Newton

Logan-Rogersville at Lamar

Marshfield at McDonald County

Mount Vernon at Monett

Neosho at Ozark

Pierce City at Lockwood

Pleasant Hope at Marionville

Reeds Spring at Nevada

Republic at Branson

Sarcoxie at Houston

Springfield Catholic at Seneca

Stockton at Miller

Webb City at Carl Junction

Willard at Joplin