All Ozarks Football Player of the Year Forrest Merrill of Willard
They blocked, tackled, ran, threw, caught, kicked, won and lost from early August to Thanksgiving weekend. On Thursday night, 25 of the best high school football players from in and around Springfield celebrated their seasons.
The Springfield News-Leader unveiled its 2014 American Family Insurance All-Ozarks Team with a banquet and awards ceremony at the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. A selection committee chose 12 offensive players, 12 defensive players and one kicker to represent the elite in area high school football.
The recipient of the inaugural HyVee All-Ozarks Most Valuable Player award couldn’t be at the ceremony. The hard-working Forrest Merrill, a 6-foot-1, 320-pound offensive and defensive lineman from Willard, was unable to miss his shift at a local restaurant. He received his MVP trophy Friday at Willard High School with coach Brock Roweton and teammate Tyler Larsen looking on.
Merrill’s football career isn’t close to finished, but he isn’t sure where he will pursue college football. According to Roweton, Merrill had a scholarship offer from Missouri State and was set to commit to the Bears when the University announced the departure of head coach Terry Allen. The Willard lineman is trying to be patient.
“I hope to play college football somewhere,” Merrill said.
Merrill was the centerpiece of a talented Tigers’ 9-2 season.
“Forrest gave us an edge all the time, and I think the biggest thing that Forrest has going for him is he is just so physically superior that he made everybody around him feel physically superior,” Roweton said.
For his part, Merrill put team over self despite a growing pile of end-of-season awards.
“All of that is awesome, but I really care about the team and how far we get, that’s all I really care about,” Merrill said. “It’s awesome to get all these other accolades, but it doesn’t really matter to me.”
The big silver football trophy doesn’t stack up to the fun Merrill had with his fellow linemen.
“I’ll probably cherish the brotherhood on the field between me and my teammates, it’s just something I enjoyed,” Merrill said.
On offense, Merrill created instant running lanes.
“I don’t blame kids. Hey, I would run from Forrest too,” Roweton quipped. “Nobody wanted any part of hitting him, so when he was kicking out or pulling around for a linebacker, there was lots of space.”
Merrill’s approach to football rubbed off on his teammates, as he anchored a line with four seniors. Larsen, one of Merrill’s running mates, is now an all-Ozarks offensive lineman, but says winning as a team is more important to him than winning an award as an individual.
“We knew it was going to be a special year with our group, and it was just a fun ride, to be able to play all these teams and like (Merrill) said, establish a brotherhood on the field — it was special,” Larsen said.
All-Ozarks second team
Jordan Jack, Sr. QB, Miller
Dylan Mountain, Jr. QB, Skyline
Hunter Yeargan, Jr. RB, Willard
Alec Murphy, Sr. RB, Nixa
Skyler Duley, Sr. WR, Joplin
Boby Johnson, Sr. WR, Miller
Tristan Haltom, Sr. OL, Ava
Henry Brownell, Sr. OL, Camdenton
Connor Jones, Sr. OL, Willard
Kade Kelly, Sr. OL, Skyline
Skyler Hale, Jr. OL, Republic
Alex Castillo, Sr. K, Strafford
Tanner Pardeis, Sr. DE, Diamond
Isaac Hill, Sr. DL, Miller
Nicholas Brand, Sr. DE, Nixa
Christopher Jones, Sr. DE, Lighthouse Christian
Isaac Norsic, Sr. LB, Hillcrest
Ben Wilken, Sr. LB, Kickapoo
Zach Jester, Sr. LB, Republic
Jacob LaSalle, Jr. LB, Marionville
Brady Collier, Sr. DB, Strafford
Robert Richmond, Sr. DB, Willard
Driston Self, Sr. DB, Osceola
Brett Garner, Sr. P, Springfield Catholic
American Family Insurance All USA Ozarks 2014 football team
Tony Grant, senior running back, Kickapoo
Grant took what he perceived to be the underestimation of Kickapoo’s football prowess very personally. If a team overlooked the Chiefs, he made sure they paid for it to the tune of 1,950 yards and 28 touchdowns on 303 carries. Grant exceeded 100 yards rushing in a single game eight times, and Ozark Conference defenders who tried to tackle him were often left with bruises. A second team Class 6 all-state selection, Grant received top honor as the Springfield Quarterback Club’s MVP.
Josh Martin, senior running back, Camdenton
Everyone at Bob Shore Stadium from the opposing coach, to the tuba section, to the guy selling hamburgers knew Martin was going to be handed the ball on almost every offensive play Camdenton ran, and he still made big gains. Martin rushed 351 times for 2,506 yards and 28 touchdowns, enough for an eye-popping average of 227.8 yards per game and 7.1 yards per carry. The humble Martin frequently gave reporters an “aww shucks” smile and credited his offensive line for his big games.
Connor Ratcliff, all-purpose athlete, Parkview
When coach Anthony Hays needed to bolster his offense, he asked his star receiver to take reps as a tailback and a quarterback. Ratcliff answered the bell with 139 carries for 974 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. With Nicholas Cole under center, Ratcliff caught 55 passes for 776 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He also returned kickoffs and punts for Parkview, and will likely be a man to watch for Feb. 4, 2015, otherwise known as National Signing Day.
Dallas Hester, senior wide receiver, Strafford
Ask Hester about his football accomplishments, and the first thing he says is, “we play as a team.” Along with seniors Dalton Taylor and Brady Collier, Hester took part in Strafford’s three-headed monster offense that took the team to the Class 2 quarterfinals, farther than Strafford has ever been. Hester caught 63 receptions for 1,188 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014, and ends his high school career with 3,034 yards and 42 touchdowns. He’s a state champion in the triple jump and a basketball standout, but Hester is poised to play college football.
Chanler Collins, junior quarterback, Strafford
Collins had the unfortunate task of being Strafford’s starting quarterback after the graduation of now-Evangel quarterback Jacob Wade. Collins took on the task of spreading touches to Strafford’s array of skill players with the precision of a surgeon, completing 77 percent of his passes. Collins went 157-for-204 passing for 2,525 yards, 37 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He quarterbacked Strafford to a 12-1 season and finishes his junior year as quarterback for the No. 3 Class 2 team in Missouri.
Isaiah Holyfield, senior wide receiver, Central
The Bulldogs needed reliable hands for freshman quarterback Quintin Batson to rely upon. Holyfield became the youngster’s favorite target and had a season a receiver at any level could be proud of. Holyfield had 56 receptions for 1,118 yards and 10 touchdowns. His leadership leaves a lasting impression on a Central team building for the long-term future of its program.
Erik Savage, sophomore wide receiver, Hillcrest
Coach John Beckham notes Savage’s qualifications for academic all-state selection, and why not? Savage did a little bit of everything else for Hillcrest this fall. The sophomore became senior Brady Petry’s go-to guy with 42 receptions for 1,050 yards and 13 touchdowns. Savage’s biggest catch came on a fade to the left side of the west end zone at Shumate Stadium, and gave the Hornets a shocking 34-28 win over Lebanon Sept. 19. Savage also plays defensive back, punter and kickoff returner.
Tyler Larsen, senior guard, Willard
His coaches recognized him for his leadership and smarts. Willard running backs Hunter Yeargan and Robert Richmond gained more than 1,900 and 1,000 yards, respectively, in 2014. Larsen joined seniors Forrest Merrill, Connor Jones and Austin McMillen on a line that paved the way to nine wins. Larsen says creative writing is his true passion, and he plans to attend college and pursue a career as a fiction author.
Connor Massey, senior tackle, Ozark
Massey played right and left tackle in Ozark’s single-wing wildcat offense, and appears equally proficient at pass blocking and run blocking. The 6-foot-5, 290-pounder did more run blocking for coach Mark Bliss’ Tigers, who accounted for more than 3,000 total rushing yards in 2014. You can’t coach Massey’s size, but he also brings technical consistency and an immense work ethic to the game.
Jordan Johnson, senior tackle, Central
The Bulldogs’ coaching staff challenged Johnson to serve as a field general. He responded by leading as one of only two seniors on Central’s starting offense. When coach Lorenzo Williams needed a player to demonstrate the right way to play, he asked younger players to watch Johnson. And in games, “When we needed to run, we ran behind him,” Williams said.
Garrett McGuire, junior guard, Hillcrest
The bad part of being an offensive lineman is that you usually only get recognized when you commit a penalty or allow a sack. McGuire was recognized only once for committing a penalty and allowed zero sacks all season. “He plays with a tremendous effort,” coach John Beckham says of an offensive lineman he calls the best he has coached in his tenure at Hillcrest.
Greg Robinson, senior tackle, Parkview
Robinson appeared to take his team captaincy very seriously from the moment Parkview opened training camp to the Vikings’ final walk off the playing field at Nixa in a district championship loss. Robinson provided leadership by example and helped account for more than 2,800 rushing yards and the rise of junior Anthony Riley as a prolific running back.
Logan Tyler, junior all-purpose defender, Nixa
There was little doubt Tyler played his way to all-Ozarks status, the question was where he fits on the roster. How do you classify a guy who played running back, quarterback, linebacker, defensive back, kicker and punter through the course of Nixa’s journey to a Class 5 Show-Me Bowl appearance? We decided his 58 tackles, three interceptions, his punting prowess and more than 45 touchbacks made him an all-purpose athlete. Tyler also rushed for 1,044 yards and 13 touchdowns and scored 69 points as a kicker.
Jacob Watkins, senior linebacker, Nixa
Watkins also played on the offensive line, but his 120 tackles and seven sacks made him an easy choice for a spot as an all-Ozarks linebacker. Watkins helped Nixa overcome a 1-4 start against some of the top teams in the state. The Eagles’ stretch run of eight consecutive wins coincided with Watkins finding his stride on the Nixa defense.
Josh Kent, senior defensive back, Reeds Spring
“The kid is a player,” Reeds Spring coach Lance Gosch said of his rangy free safety. Kent made the middle of the field a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. He recorded 43 solo tackles, 27 assisted tackles and four interceptions. As a running back in the Wolves’ flex bone set, Kent rushed for 548 yards, caught 21 passes for 420 yards and scored a total of 11 touchdowns.
Matt Wernsing, senior linebacker, West Plains
The Ozark Conference defensive player of the year crashed and banged his way to 15 tackles for loss, 45 solo stops and 63 assisted tackles. Wernsing also registered 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. Wernsing helped revitalize football in West Plains by winning a share of the Ozark Conference championship.
Mason Husmann, junior defensive end, Aurora
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Husmann attacked the edges of Big 8 offensive lines with unrivaled power and speed. He made 79 solo tackles, nine tackles for loss and five sacks. Husmann’s engine is relentless as his pursuit of ball carriers, who often found themselves in Husmann’s clutches despite their effort to run to the opposite edge of the Houn’ Dawgs’ defense.
Connor Hicks, junior defensive back, Lebanon
Hicks made 58 solo tackles and 48 assisted stops from the free safety position. As a receiver, he caught 51 passes for 728 yards and a four touchdowns, and also served as the kickoff and punt returner for coach Will Christian’s Yellowjackets.
Samuel Morton, junior linebacker, Strafford
His school record-setting 30 tackles against Lamar in the state quarterfinals had people in the press box asking “Morton again?” in disbelief. Believe it. Morton led a Strafford defense the surrendered an average of 8.46 points per game. The junior amassed 210 total tackles, an average of 16.2 stops per game.
Mason Pack, junior defensive back, Kickapoo
Pack became a team captain in the Chiefs’ first season as a Class 6 football school. He collected 78 tackles and seven interceptions on defense, and hauled in 31 receptions for 488 yards and three touchdowns as a wide receiver. Kickapoo coach Joel Wells spoke highly of Pack’s character and leadership on top of his nose for interceptions.
Forrest Merrill, senior defensive tackle, Willard
Merill intimidated opposing players with his presence at ceremonial coin tosses. He played his way to 86 tackles, 20 stops for loss, four sacks, first team all-state honors, and the Central Ozarks Conference, Large division player of the year title.
Chandler Collins, senior tight end, Glendale
Collins played tight to the line as an underclassmen and became a split end by necessity when Glendale adopted a no-huddle, pedal to the metal, five-wide offense under coach Mike Mauk. Collins responded to the Falcons’ coaching change by leading the team with 108 receptions, 1,069 receiving yards and ten touchdowns.
Taylor Middlebrooks, senior kicker, Parkview
A four-year starter for the Vikings, Middlebrooks connected for 46 of 48 extra point kicks and seven field goals in 2014, with a long of 50 yards. Middlebrooks served as Parkview’s punter and kicked 46 touchbacks on kickoffs. Aside from football, Middlebrooks also plays soccer and competes in track and field. Middebrooks will be a college football kicker and has designs on studying mechanical engineering.
Kiante Hardin, senior cornerback, Webb City
No man is an island, but Kiante Hardin is about as close as it gets. Quarterbacks avoided throwing to Hardin’s side of the field so much that his 19 tackles and pair of interceptions paled in comparison to his offensive production of 32 receptions for 684 yards and eight touchdowns. Hardin’s future lies on defense and his commitment to play for former Webb City coach Jerry Kill at the University of Minnesota.
Sam Roberts, junior defensive tackle, Waynesville
Roberts was a force in the trenches for coach Rick Vernon’s Tigers all season, and his game seemed to get stronger as he gained experience. Roberts logged 50 solo tackles — a massive number for an interior lineman. He also caused two fumbles and recovered two more, one of which he ran back for a touchdown. Roberts made 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.