When you first meet Ozark head football coach Mark Bliss, you kind of get the impression he’s trying to sell you on something.
That’s not a knock. It’s just that he has passion for his football players — one that extends beyond the gridiron — and is not afraid to wear that emotion on his sleeve. That’s somewhat unusual in society and downright rare in a football coach.
So when he waxes poetic upon reflection of what his football team accomplished this year — Ozark shocked the state by downing No. 1-seed Lee’s Summit West in the quarterfinals before falling to Fort Osage in the Class 5 semifinals — you genuinely believe him.
“In terms of the season itself, when you get a chance to reflect, you realize how special this group of young men was,” said Bliss, who loses 20 seniors. “This senior class was so instrumental in getting things done this year and in this program. They did everything we asked of them and more.
“Now I start seeing these (seniors) around the hallway and you realize you’re not going to get to coach them anymore.”
The seniors buying into the new program last season — and Bliss’ ability to sell it — was instrumental in resurrecting a program that had slipped to 3-6 in 2010. A 7-3 season in Bliss’ first year was followed by one of the best years in school history.
Ozark finished 11-2 overall, 6-1 in the Central Ozark Conference Large Division and both of its losses came to teams that played in state championship games. The losses were to Webb City (Class 4 champion) and Fort Osage, a 16-7 loss in the semifinals that ended the season.
There were plenty of big wins, including a pair of victories against archrival Nixa, and the 26-23 stunner over Lee’s Summit West that set the state on its ear. It didn’t just gain respect for Ozark around the state, but southwest Missouri football in general.
“I would like to think, that on Friday night in the COC you go against that guy across from you as hard as you can,” Bliss said. “But when you leave the conference and make the playoffs, you’d cheer for each other like I do for Webb (City) and Nixa and whoever goes on.
“It was great to represent our conference and our area and to let people know teams from our area can compete with anybody.”
The Tigers’ potent offense averaged a whopping 441 yards per game, while a stingy defense held opponents to just 178 a game.
Not bad considering the offensive and defensive lines were decimated by graduation and were a concern heading in.
The Tigers will face heavy personnel losses next year, however. Much of that potent offensive firepower will graduate. Cody Lindsay rushed for 1,374 yards and scored 26 touchdowns while quarterback David Salazar rushed for 692 yards and passed for 1,159. Also gone are tailback Austin Roberts, who rushed for 1,066 yards and top receiver Seth Wheeler.
With all the success came lots of accolades. Lindsay and offensive lineman Cameron Glenn were named first team all-state by the media and Levi Tucker was named to the second team as a linebacker. All three were also named to the News-Leader’s All-Ozarks team.
Bliss said with the team’s successful season, college coaches have been hanging around the campus. As many as 20 have been there in recent weeks, and six seniors have offers ranging from NAIA to NCAA FCS (formerly I-AA) schools, though no players have committed yet.
Even with all that talent gone next year, underestimating the Tigers could be dangerous.
Ozark will have 17 seniors next season, and Bliss is optimistic the backfield could be good again. Clint Godfrey will be the favorite to take over at quarterback, and lightning quick-tailback Caleb Essick will get a chance to rack up numbers. Another back, Wyatt Mitchem, will also be in the mix after missing all but three games with an injury this year.
“We graduated 20 seniors from one of the most talented classes I ever coached and I’ve been blessed by God to coach state title teams in the past,” Bliss said. “We have lots of shoes to fill next year and the only thing we have to compare is that our JV has had a winning season coming up.
“The kids realize the bar is set high and we’ll continue to have high expectations.”