Mightily impressed after seeing Sam Clark for the first time and not knowing of him beforehand, a visiting journalist at Ozark’s jamboree suggested to the local sports editor that the junior would make for a good write-up.
Clark’s name had appeared in print often already dating back to his freshman season as a sprinter in track, along with his well-documented interception as a starting sophomore cornerback a year ago while outjumping Nixa’s Kael Combs for a pass.
Clark became a headliner in the Headliner on Friday, shining like a star appearing well on his way to an All-COC First Team selection, despite Ozark’s 45-23 setback at the hands of Willard.
Clark essentially and incredibly replayed his pick at Nixa by making an eerily similar leap and grab for the ball for a 25-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Peyton Russell. He outjumped a Willard player and came down with the ball secured, even as his arms were entangled with the defender’s arms.
“This time I was the receiver,” Clark said, acknowledging how much alike the touchdown was to his interception. “I didn't think I caught it. But it came down on my chest. I just held on to it.”
It’s his second touchdown catch on the season.
“I was rusty (catching bases) to begin with. but have got back in the groove of it,” he said.
Clark accounted for the great majority of Ozark’s scoring. He broke loose for a 47-yard touchdown on a punt return and booted a 39-yard field goal.
His impact on special teams helped Ozark come back from deficits of 13-0 in the first quarter and 25-14 at halftime to within two of Willard, 25-23, late in the third quarter.
“Sam obviously had a big field goal and big punts to flip the field,” coach Jeremy Cordell said. “He’s really been an asset to us. He's grown into his own as a player and I'm proud of him for that.”
“Special teams are definitely important. Some people overlook them,” Clark said. “I was kicking it well this week (in practices). My kickoffs, I was struggling with, but field goals, I don't think I missed one. I’m confident in my field goals.”
Clark’s punt return saw him catch the ball at midfield in traffic, before dashing by defenders.
“Originally, I was supposed to fair-catch it,” Clark said. “But I felt like I should take it and go. Fair-catching wasn't going to help us.”
His field goal cleared the uprights easily and likely would have been good from 49 yards out.
“I can get it there,” Clark said.
Just as Clark has been an unknown to outsiders of Ozark’s program, Willard running back Gary Walker has hardly been a household name throughout the COC.
Ozark learned plenty about him Friday.
Walker stymied Ozark’s comeback bid by rushing 20 times for 172 yards. Dude showed the uncanny ability to get stronger as the game went along and capped his breakthrough night with touchdown runs of 28 and nine yards in the fourth quarter.
All this after Walker entered the night with only 75 yards rushing in Willard’s first three games. He had a modest 66 carries for 368 yards last season.
“It was very surprising for him to come out like that,” Ozark linebacker Parker Elliott said. “He followed his line and tried to run it down our throats and did a good job of it.”
“I hadn't been with our defense (during practices) all week, so I didn't know the scouting report on them at all,” Clark said. “I got thrown out there (at cornerback) and had to be an athlete and play. (Walker) is a strong runner. He's shifty. He's hard to tackle.”
Walker’s emergence allowed Willard to play ball-control and run down the clock. Much-heralded quarterback Russell Roweton didn’t need to throw a single pass in the fourth quarter.
Roweton did his damage in the first half with four touchdown passes. The senior finished 12-of-17 passing for 164 yards, with one interception.
There’s not a more polished signal-caller in the COC. Roweton repeatedly eluded and frustrated Ozark pass-rushers by scrambling out of the pocket and promptly firing an accurate pass while on the run.
“He can make his reads and throw the ball,” Elliott said. “He did a good job escaping and finding green grass to throw to.”
With a potent combo like Roweton and Walker and a much-improved defense, little wonder Willard (3-1) is the surprise success story in the COC.
“They've got some skill,” Cordell said. “They’ve got some players. Credit to Willard.”
Ozark (1-3) played catch-up all night, turning the ball over twice in the first half on interceptions.
Willard was in position to possibly go up 20-0 in the first quarter, but a Roweton pass from Ozark’s 6-yard line was intercepted by Ozark safety Peyton Bullinger in the end zone.
Other than a 28-yard touchdown run by Jack Bowers, Ozark’s running game was kept in check.
Ozark’s offense suffered a blow as lineman Logan Smith suffered an injury. He was walking with crutches after the game.
“I pray that he is good to go,” Cordell said.
Ozark’s defense got three straight stops in the third quarter, but ultimately couldn’t keep Willard’s offense off the field.
“We had little mistakes here and there,” Elliott said. “We had a couple missed tackles and a couple missed reads. Those are fixable things.”
“There are things we have to get better at fundamentally and we will get there,” Cordell said. “We’re not going to give up. We're going to keep building.
“You work hard at a sport like this and you expect to win,” he added. “Every time we expect to win, no matter who we play. We hold ourselves to very high standards. I'm confident we will get there. This is part of building it up.”
Willard 45, Ozark 23
Willard 13 12 0 20 - 45
Ozark 0 14 9 0 - 23
W - Kenyon Nixon 6 pass from Russell Roweton (Jon Lupescu kick
W - Timmy Ruble 32 pass from Roweton (kick no good)
O - Jack Bowers 28 run (Sam Clark kick)
W - Colbee Mowell 47 pass from Roweton (pass failed)
O - Clark 25 pass from Russell (Clark kick)
W - Mowell 17 pass form Roweton (run no good)
O - Clark 47 punt return (run no good)
O - Clark 39 field goal
W - Roweton 6 run (Lopescu kick)
W - Gary Walker 28 run (Lupescu kick)
W - Walker 9 run (kick no good)