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Missouri high school football team previews (South Central region): New coach takes over Ava squad fresh off trip to quarterfinals

Longtime Bears assistant Casey Merrifield takes over at the helm.

By Chris Geinosky | Photo courtesy of Missouri Helmet Project

Over the next few weeks, SBLive Missouri will break down various high school football teams in the state in anticipation of the upcoming 2022 season. Here’s our look at the Ava Bears. 

HEAD COACH

Casey Merrifield, 1st season (0-0)

RETURNING STARTERS

6 offense, 5 defense

2021 AT A GLANCE

Overall record: 11-1

League record: 7-0, 1st in South Central Association

Playoffs: Lost 35-14 to eventual Class 2 state runner-up Lamar in state quarterfinals

PLAYERS TO WATCH

OL/LB Carter Mahan, 6-0, 200, Sr.

During last year’s dominant campaign where Ava outscored its opponents by an average 40-12 margin, Mahan led the defense with 115 total tackles and 11 sacks and was named to the first team defense all-conference team by the South Central Association coaches. He will also start on the offensive line to help the team.

FB/LB Hunter Adams, 5-11, 195, So.

Adams put up arguably the most productive season by any freshman in the entire state last year, rushing for a team-leading 1,174 yards and 25 touchdowns. With the departure of the team’s next three leading rushers to graduation, he will be counted on even more as the lone returner in the backfield.

OL/DL Kegan Evans, 6-2, 230, Sr.

A ground-and-pound team that rushed the ball for nearly 4,000 yards (298 per game) last year, Ava depends on its offensive line to win at the point of attack. Evans, who is described as a "big tough country boy" by the coaching staff, will anchor the front both offensively and defensively.

RB/DB Grady Goss, 5-9, 150, Sr.

The hardest working player on the team, Goss will be expected to lead the defense from his safety position, where he racked up 94 total tackles a season ago. With the loss of so many backfield pieces from last year, he will counted on to be a bigger piece of the offense.

WR/LB Ashton Stout, 5-10, 150, Sr.

Stout could be the one player who has the most impact on determining the fate of the season for the Bears. A key contributor on both sides of the ball as a receiver and linebacker for Ava last year, it appears he will move to quarterback for his senior season.

OTHER RETURNING STARTERS

K Jeremiah Blakely, 5-11, 205, Sr.; OL/DL Luke Little, 6-2, 225, Sr.; RB/DE Tyson Tidwell, 5-7, 160, Jr.; OL/DL Junior Cazares, 5-11, 280, Jr.; OL/DL Erick Haro, 5-9, 280, Sr.

TOP NEWCOMERS

RB/DB Rylin Dickson, 5-10, 145, Jr.; OL/DL Kaden Davis, 6-0, 210, Jr.; WR/DE Jacob McGinnis, 6-0, 165, Sr.; RB/DB Thomas Merritt, 5-8, 135, So.; RB/DB Andy Albritton, 5-8, 130, So.; OL/DL Matthew Lakey, 5-8, 185, Jr.; OL/DL Brandt Snelson, 5-11, 220, Jr.; OL/DL Braydon Loertcher, 6-2, 245, Sr.; RB/DE Brayden Thorburn, 5-10, 145, Jr.; RB/DB Hunter Hall, 5-11, 150, Sr.; RB/LB Wyatt Johnson, 5-9, 165, Sr.

OUTLOOK

It’s not often that a football team coming off an impressive 11-1 season heads into a new campaign with a new head coach. But that’s exactly the situation for Ava, which lost former head man Dan Swofford, the 2021 SCA Coach of the Year who accepted the challenge of the next level as an assistant coach at Evangel University in Springfield.

Casey Merrifield, an assistant at Ava the past 11 years, will now take over. And he has a load of experienced players on his side featuring 19 returning lettermen, eight of which started regularly.

A program that appeared in a state championship game in 2019, Ava suffered an injury-depleted season in the COVID year in 2020.

However, the Bears turned things around in a big way last season, rolling to the team’s fourth SCA title in the past five years and capturing a district title before falling to perennial state powerhouse Lamar in the Class 2 state quarterfinals.

The team lost six first-time all-conference players, including all-staters Spencer Skyles and Jacob Lakey, but there’s still plenty of talent in the cupboard. Hunter Adams returns as the team’s leading rusher from a year ago, and Kegan Evans will anchor the offensive line.

Carter Mahan and Grady Goss will lead the defense.

COACH SAID

"We have a great mix of experience and newcomers that will be leading the way this year. We have a lot of turnover in our backfield both offensively and defensively. I will also be a first-time head coach, and Garrett Baird will be a first-time defensive coordinator. We do expect some bumps in the road, but we expect the 11 players we put on the field at all times to be hard working and committed to doing little things right. We expect to be a better team than the week before every time we step on the field." - Casey Merrifield