Those new full-color programs Houston High School began printing last year will come in handy at Tiger Stadium in 2016. With just two returning starters, there are plenty of new faces in important places for the HHS football team.
“We have a lot of guys that only played Monday nights last year,” second-year head coach Eric Sloan said. “They’re not Friday night proven, but we have guys I think people will say, ‘Who is that?’”
Minus seniors Chance Hunter and Connor Clifton, a completely new cast of players will be asked to carry the momentum from 2015 into a new year. Names like Paydon Dixon, Evan Richardson and Michael Clayton will attempt to continue the forward progress from last year’s squad that went 4-6 to win more games than the previous five years combined. But it won’t be easy.
Along with putting nearly an entirely new team on the field, the Tigers compete in a conference –– the South Central Association –– that returns three district champions. The postseason also got tougher as new classifications dropped perennial power Mountain Grove and Ava into Houston’s district.
Another surprising hurdle is a thin roster. Despite last year’s success and a coaching staff that returns intact, Houston’s participation has drastically dropped. Sloan said only 15 players were faithful to the summer workout program and he starts the season with a roster of 35 –– down from nearly 50 last year.
That means as many as nine different players could start on both sides of the ball.
“It goes against everything I’ve ever done,” Sloan said. “You try to get kids out here and there to spell them. We’ve been running extra sprints because we’ll have a core group of guys that will have to play a lot of minutes. We’ve got to be in better mental and physical shape than everyone else.”
Although Houston only returns one offensive starter, it’s an exceptional one.
Hunter is back for his senior campaign after carrying the ball 217 times for 1,036 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first year after transferring from Cabool to HHS. He’ll be just as important to the success of this year’s team.
“I think he’d be a dancer if there was music,” Sloan said. “He’s very blessed with running ability. He can run downhill or get on the edge and outrun people. There’s not many 189-pound kids who can shift one direction and be at full speed really quick.”
The Tigers’ spread offense will be under the direction the sophomore Dixon. Although it will be his first full season at quarterback, he gained some valuable experience as the starter in last year’s district matchup with Strafford. He completed 8 of 17 passes for 85 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in the 46-20 loss.
On the edges will be slot receiver Richardson, who will be in motion on most plays and is a threat to carry the ball on jet sweeps, and Clifton at wide receiver. They are backed up by Gavin Alston and Lucas Kelley.
Cameron Root and CJ Lee will share time at tight end.
With first-year starters surrounding his returning all-conference running back, Sloan said he and offensive coordinator Vince McCrosky are well aware that defenses will be keying on Hunter.
“He’s going to be a marked man every game,” Sloan said. “We’ll use him, but we will also use him as a decoy. We’re adding some trick plays to take some bodies away from other guys.”
One important piece of the HHS offense is a mobile quarterback that has expanded the playbook. Sloan said he will give Dixon plays with options to run or throw based on what he sees from the defense.
“His ability to get out and run is huge,” Sloan said. “Hopefully that will keep the defense honest and give guys opportunities to make plays based on Dixon’s decisions.”
An entirely new line will be asked to pave the way for the offense. Junior Josh Hurst is the center with Dawson Koch flanking him at left guard and Logan Bell at right guard. Brad Wilber will start at left tackle and Dalton James is the right tackle.
The team’s starting fullback –– called the “sniffer” –– is Clayton.
The offensive line, which lost first-team all-conference selection Keegan Spurlin to graduation, will be smaller than last year. Outside of Wilber, who weighs 257 pounds, the other four starters are each around 215.
“We’re not going to be as big up front, but we might be quicker and maybe a little more athletic in spots,” Sloan said. “I like what we have. If we can get them going hard every play and stay healthy, I think we can compete.”
The Tigers’ defense doubles the offense in experience with two returning starters –– Hunter at inside linebacker and Clifton, an honorable mention all-SCA selection, at outside linebacker. Hunter led the team last year with five sacks and 10 tackles for losses while Clifton was Houston’s third-leading tackler and had a team-best two fumble recoveries.
The rest of the unit is brand new.
Up front in Houston’s 4-2-5 base defense are James and Root at defensive tackles and Clayton and Wilber at defensive ends.
Joining Clifton and Hunter in the linebacking corps is Hurst on the interior and Lee or Blake Liles on the outside.
The Tigers’ secondary is comprised of Dixon, Kelley and Richardson.
Ken Cooperman is the defensive coordinator.
Sloan pointed out Kelley’s leadership in the secondary and said both his defensive ends had strong preseasons. He has been particularly impressed with Clayton, a 6-2, 205-pound junior.
“I think Michael is primed to have a good season,” Sloan said. “He is long, lanky, fast and physical.”
Despite snapping a 16-game losing skid last year and winning the program’s most games since 2008, Sloan said building the Tigers into a consistent winner will continue to take time. He often points out the success at Liberty, which took four years to win a game under Darin Acklin but now is one of the region’s top teams.
He said success will be measured by more than just the points on the scoreboard.
“I don’t ever want to put a win-loss total out there. To be honest, I don’t know because we have so many guys who haven’t played Friday nights,” Sloan said. “If it’s one of those deals where at the end of the year we’re competitive, I think that’s successful. If you go play Mountain Grove and Liberty and get blown out, we’re not gaining.
“If we get to where we can compete with teams on the schedule that we haven’t been competitive with in the past, I think we’re getting there. I don’t know what that looks like with wins and losses. Hopefully, over time that begins to take care of itself.”
It starts Friday night with the season opener at home against Ash Grove.
“These guys aren’t battle tested on Friday nights, so you don’t know when it’s for real against Ash Grove how we’ll play,” Sloan said. “We’ll see what happens when 7 o’clock August 19th gets here, and we’ll let that tell the story.”
Aug. 19 Ash Grove
Aug. 26 at St. James
Sept. 2 at Salem
Sept. 9 Cabool
Sept. 16 Thayer
Sept. 23 at Ava
Sept. 30 Willow Springs
Oct. 7 at Mountain Grove
Oct. 14 Liberty
Oct. 21 Districts
all games 7 p.m.
Aug. 29 Liberty
Sept. 6 at Salem
Sept. 12 Cabool
Sept. 19 Thayer
Sept. 26 at Ava
Oct. 3 Willow Springs
Oct. 10 at Mountain Grove
all games 6 p.m.
Sept. 8 at Mountain Grove
Sept. 15 Ava
Sept. 22 at Cabool
Sept. 29 Liberty
Oct. 6 Salem
Oct. 11 at Thayer
all games 5:30 p.m.