Thanks in part to injuries annually hindering Jace Whatley on the gridiron the past three seasons, he has enjoyed a more distinguished Ozark career playing basketball than football.
In fact, the senior front-line player could finish as a 1,000/500 man. He'll likely get his 500th career rebound in tonight’s home game with Neosho. Whatley’s career totals include 927 points and 497 rebounds.
But while talking about his rebounding, Whatley is quick to characterize himself as a football player playing basketball, not vice-versa.
“I'm a football kid and usually, football kids are rebounders and hard-nosed kids,” he said. “I’m trying to prove that right by getting rebounds and helping my team.”
The impact Whatley’s rebounds can make was evident in Ozark’s 62-60 victory versus Carthage earlier this week. After Carthage got up by 11, Whatley triggered Ozark’s comeback by garnering five offensive rebounds and 11 points in the third quarter.
He finished the night with 20 points and eight boards.
“Jace was very determined that every offensive board was going to be his in that quarter,” coach Mark Schweitzer said “He converted and helped us chip away at their lead.
“When Jace wants to go get it, he's hard to keep off the glass,” he added. “I challenged him at halftime. I was perturbed he gave up an offensive board and a putback. He did a way better job in the second half.”
Whatley falls in line with other tight ends past and present from around the COC who are or were strong rebounders. That list includes the likes of Joplin senior Whit Hafer and Nixa grad Chase Allen.
Former Ozark football players Tyler Oakley and Nathan Bilyeu were also strong rebounders during their glory days. Oakley is the Tigers’ single-season rebounding record-holder and Bilyeu averaged nine rebounds a game as a senior. Oakley was a wide receiver and Bilyeu a quarterback.
Like his predecessors, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Whatley usually has a physical edge on his counterparts.
“I'm longer, taller and a little thicker than the kids in (the paint),” he said. “I don't have to set an actual screen to block out people. That gives me a good circle where I can go straight up and grab the rebound.”
Whatley’s speed has stood out at times. He was also a difference-maker on defense against Carthage, hustling downcourt to block what initially appeared to be a breakaway layup by a Carthage forward in the final minute.
“It was crunch time, you can't lay off on a play in the fourth quarter,” Whatley said “One play can mean the difference in a game and it was a (two-)point game. That (blocked) layup meant everything.”