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Editor’s note: Over the coming days, we will honor the best and brightest individual performers from the 2021 Missouri high school football season, culminating with the unveiling of the inaugural SBLive all-state team on Monday, January 24.

By Chris Geinosky

When Liberty North head football coach Greg Jones entered his team’s locker room after the MSHSAA Class 6 state championship game at the University of Missouri’s Faurot Field, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Melvin Laster has never been the most outspoken leader for the Eagles. Yet, there he was, greeting every player that walked through the door. As disappointing as it was in that moment after a defeat that denied North the program’s first-ever state title, Laster shook the hands of each of his teammates — thanking the seniors and telling them he appreciated them and encouraging everyone to keep their heads up.

“I call him the Mayor of Eagleville because it seems like he knows every kid in the school, and he talks to every one of them,” Jones explained. “But I had never seen that out of him before. As an underclassman the past two years, I think he was comfortable letting the older guys do the talking with the team. But after that state game, for him to do that, I think that shows what kind of leader he’s going to be the next two years.” 

Hold that thought, Coach. Let’s focus on what kind of player Laster is right now.

After all, we’re talking about the Greater Kansas City Suburban Gold Conference Defensive Player of the Year. We’re talking about the winner of the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the most outstanding large school offensive/defensive lineman or linebacker in the Kansas City area. We’re talking about someone who was unanimously chosen as the Class 6 Defensive Player of the Year by the Missouri Football Coaches Association. And now we’re talking about the 2021 SBLive Missouri Sophomore of the Year.

“It’s been a crazy ride,” Laster acknowledged. “I never really expected all this. I just go to work, hit the weight room, and focus on my footwork every day. It’s a great feeling to be recognized.”

And keep in mind that Laster has done all of this as a 16-year-old student-athlete.

“I think that tells you all you need to know about Melvin,” Jones said. “He’s earned the respect of coaches from all over the state. ...

“The No. 1 thing that jumps out to me is with all the successes he’s had, even at this early age, he’s one of the humblest persons I’ve been around. None of this has gone to his head. He’s the same person that came to our program on Day One. He’s just a big ol’ kid that loves football.”

Liberty North’s star-studded middle linebacker already has an impressive resume, only two years into his prep career. And he’s only going to get better.

“It’s not just that he’s a sophomore. He’s a sophomore in the state’s biggest class,” reiterated his position coach and Liberty North defensive coordinator Andy Lierman. “When you look at Melvin, the first thing that jumps out at you is his size. He’s a very physical and intimidating player. But he’s an extremely smart football player, especially for a 16-year-old. His football IQ is extremely high. And honestly, he’s just starting to figure it all out.”

That might be the scariest part. And consider this is coming from an individual standing 6-3, 240 pounds that has the reputation of delivering some of the biggest hits in the state.

A downhill linebacker that never shies away from contact, Laster finished his sophomore campaign as the Eagles’ defensive leader with 80 total tackles — 56 solos and 24 assists. He recorded nine sacks and 14 other quarterback pressures and forced three turnovers with two interceptions and one fumble. 

“The numbers for our players are always lower than other teams,” Lierman explained. “We don’t give our kids anything. We make them earn it. That’s the mantra of our program. So yeah, his raw numbers might not jump off the page like some other guys', but his play on the film does.”

You better believe it. Laster is considered one of the top NCAA Division I college recruits in the state from the 2024 graduating class. He has already received attention from a dozen Power Five schools, mostly from the Midwest region.

That list will only grow as his prep career continues, especially if his play on the field trends in the same direction as the past two seasons. Last season, Laster became only the second player to start under the Friday night lights as a freshman during the 20-plus year career of Jones, one of the most decorated coaches in Show-Me State history who was inducted in the MFCA Hall of Fame in 2020.

Who was the other player to start as a freshman for Jones? That would be standout Cale Garrett, who led Kearney to the Class 4 state championship in 2015 before becoming one of the top linebackers in Mizzou history and continuing his playing career at the professional level.

“Those two guys are really similar,” Jones pointed out. “Melvin actually had the chance to work one-on-one with Cale for about a month when he was between teams last year, and what a tremendous opportunity for a freshman in high school to learn from a guy in the NFL. ...

“I’m not big about talking about potential, but I will say this: Melvin is the type of kid that’s not going to rest until he gets to where he wants to be, and he wants to play big-time college football.”

But first thing’s first. Laster would like to accomplish something else before that, namely returning to the same place this season ended — at Faurot Field for another state championship game.

“That’s my goal right now,” Laster said. “With the people we have and the belief we have in each other, we hope we’ll have another chance to get that ring we missed out on this year.”