While the squad isn’t totally void of experienced players, any success enjoyed this year by the Houston High School football team will certainly involve the efforts of underclassmen.

Having lost several players to graduation who were fixtures on both sides of the ball for several years, the Tigers begin the 2021 season with a roster featuring 38 players, only 11 of whom are upperclassmen – and that includes just five seniors (two of whom are new to the team).

The total also features 17 freshmen.

“We’re going to have to stay healthy,” said head coach Eric Sloan. “If anyone goes down, we’re going to get younger than we already are. We do return quite a bit of experience in certain spots, but we’ll have some sophomores starting for us, including on the line.

“It will be interesting.”

In addition to younger, the Tigers will be generally smaller than most of their opponents. Sloan said junior lineman Alex Swallow is the squad’s bulkiest player at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds.

“We definitely don’t look like teams in the past – we don’t have any big guys,” Sloan said. “We’re going to start two guys around 175 on the line, which hasn’t happened in a long time. They move really well and are aggressive, and we’ll take that.

“But it will be a new look.”

Now in his seventh year leading Houston’s football program, Sloan said he’s a bit concerned about his team’s ability to stop opposing offenses.

“We have to get a lot better on defense,” he said. “Up to now, we’ve struggled on defense. Offensively, we seem to be ahead of the game, which is where defenses usually are at this time of year.”

At quarterback for Houston will be sophomore Wyatt Hughes, who saw significant time last season due to injuries.

“He throws it well and is a natural athlete,” Sloan said.

The 6-foot, 175-pound Hughes figures to be the centerpiece of a very diverse system.

HHS sophomore quarterback Wyatt Hughes hands the ball to junior Anthony Carroll (22) while faking a hand-off to senior Bailey Hurst during a summer camp session in July. Hughes will begin the season as the Tigers’ No. 1 QB, while Carroll and Hurst should each do a lot of running.

“We’re going to run everything,” Sloan said. “We’re going to be very multiple with formations – and I think we have to with the personnel set we have.”

Houston’s ground game will be one of the team’s few aspects dominated by experienced upperclassmen, as seniors Bailey Hurst and Zachary Fuwell and juniors Anthony Carroll and Zac Williams will do much of the running.

“We’ve got some guys who can run the ball,” Sloan said. “We have some who can catch it, too, and I think we’ll just have to have them all practice a lot of formations.”

Last season, the Tigers were hurt by turnovers on numerous occasions on their way to finishing with a 3-5 record. Sloan said the same trend would perhaps hurt even worse in 2021.

“We’re going to have to throw it, catch it and run it,” he said, “but we’re definitely also going to have to hold onto the ball.”

Led by captain Harold Lassiter (a 6-2 junior linebacker), Houston’s undersized defense will rely heavily on  strength and quickness.

“We’re just not very big,” Sloan said.

The 2021 Houston High School football coaching staff. From left: Adam Vandiver (wide receivers and defensive backs), Clay Ashworth (offensive and defensive lines), head coach Eric Sloan, Jake Brookshire (defensive coordinator) and Rodney Preheim (offensive and defensive lines).

Returning defenders who made an impact in 2020 include linemen Swallow and junior Casey Merckling, both of whom received All-Conference recognition last year, along with Fuwell at linebacker and Williams and junior Brody McNew in the backfield.

“We have some pieces back that were involved a lot last year,” Sloan said, “but it’s going to be different without those big guys in there.”

Sloan said some of the sophomores who will be starters are linemen Brady Brookshire and Keaton Goetz, as well as 6-2 John Kimrey who will be at wide receiver and kicker.

“And there are several others who will play,” Sloan said.

In his first season with the Tigers, senior Dmitri Zveniatchovskii will start at tight end and linebacker.

“He’s learning what we’re trying to do and will help us on both sides of the ball,” Sloan said. “We have no choice but to throw some inexperience out there.”

Head coach Eric Sloan is in his seventh year leading Houston’s football program.

The Tigers won’t know their district assignment this year until midseason because the Missouri State High School Activities Association wants to wait and sort things out to make sure each district has an adequate number of teams (like seeing who drops to 8-man ball, etc.).

Last season, the Tigers played seven road games and only one home game because of cancellations caused by COVID-19.

“The guys did a good job accepting the ‘road warrior’ challenge last year,” Sloan said. “There really wasn’t any complaining; every week we got to play was kind of a blessing.”

Sloan said Houston fans can expect their team to exhibit high energy and effort.

“They should be fun to watch,” he said. “We may not have the numbers, but the kids are going to play hard.”

The Tigers competed in a preseason jamboree last Friday at Mountain Grove, also including Thayer and Willow Springs. Houston’s regular season schedule features home games in the first three weeks, including a battle this Friday (Aug. 27) against Sarcoxie. In a move spurred by caution, the squad will conduct Senior Night activities during the Week 1 contest.

“I’ve never heard of that being done in Houston,” Sloan said, “but in this day and age, you might be better off getting it done early because you might not get to if you wait.”

HHS FOOTBALL ROSTER

(Jersey no., name, grade, pos.)

1. Nathaniel Garnica, 12, RB/DB

2. Brody McNew, 11, WR/DB

3. Kolten Gayer, 10, WR/DB

5. Zac Williams, 11, RB/LB

6. Zac Sawyer, 10, WR/DB

7. Dimitri Zveniatchovskii, TE/LB, 12

8. Bailey Hurst, 12, RB/LB

9. Aiden Kelly, 10, RB/DB

10. Gracyn Mitchell, 10, RB/LB

11. Austin Goetz, 11, RB/DB

14. Alex Meyer, RB/LB, 9

15. Wyatt Hughes, 10, QB/DB

20. Bryson Alexander, 9, RB/LB

21. John Kimrey, 10, WR/DB

22. Anthony Carroll, 11, RB/LB

23. Jordan Arthur, 9, QB/LB

24. Zachary Fuwell, 12, RB/DB

25. Maleki Morgan, 9, FB/LB

30. Javon Ross, 9, RB/DB

32. Connor McKinney, 9, WR/DB

33. Dakota James, 11, WR/DB

40. Dakoata Hofstetter, 9, TE/LB

50. Keaton Goetz, 9, OL/LB

52. Hayden Riggs, 9, OL/DL

53. Casey Merckling, 11, OL/DL

54. Chris Swallow, 9, OL/DL

55. Brady Brookshire, 10, OL/DL

56. Harold Lassiter, 11, OL/LB

57. Owen Wells, 9, OL/DL

62. Gage Walker, 9, OL/DL

65. Alexander Swallow, 12, OL/DL

68. Clayton Rogers, 9, OL/DL

70. Devin Shelton, 9, OL/DL

72. John Jordan, 9, OL/DL

73. Logan Dixon, 9, OL/DL

74. Trenton Shelton, 10, OL/DL

77. Brody Adkison, 9, OL/DL

78. Layne Seago, 9, OL/DL

Head coach: Eric Sloan

Assistant coaches: Jake Brookshire, Clay Ashworth, Tristan Leier, Todd McKinney, Rodney Preheim, Brett Rawlings, Michael Tottingham, Adam Vandiver.

HHS FOOTBALL SCHEDULE

Aug. 27 vs. Sarcoxie (Sr. Night)

Sept. 3 vs. St. James

Sept. 10 vs. Salem

Sept. 17 @ Cabool

Sept. 24 @ Thayer

Oct. 1 vs. Ava

Oct. 8 @ Willow Springs

Oct. 15 vs. Mountain Grove

Oct. 22 @ Liberty

Oct. 29 District Playoffs, TBA

*All games kick off at 7 p.m.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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