By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
Atchison, Kansas native and Benton High School graduate Cooper Burton has been the most sure-handed receiver for Missouri Western, and one of the most sure-handed in the MIAA, so far this season.
A sophomore, Burton leads the Griffons with 15 catches for 294 yards and a touchdown, averaging over 98 receiving yards per game.
His 15 catches are tied for second in the MIAA, while his 294 yards are more than any other receiver in the league. But ask Burton about this lightning start, and he'll tell you it's way more than just individual effort.
"I'm pretty confident, because we put a lot of work into this summer," Burton said. "As in, the whole group, you know what I mean? So, like, I have confidence in everybody and not just myself."
Burton is part of an offensive unit that's averaging more than 444 yards per game, including 270 through the air.
A 2018 Benton graduate, Burton has been a big part of Missouri Western's offensive success so far. He turned in seven catches for 90 yards against Central Oklahoma - both career-highs.
He followed that up with an 86-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter against Fort Hays State - a score that put the Griffons ahead 38-24 entering the fourth.
The following week, Burton had five more catches for 72 yards, including a 48-yard grab that set up a late third quarter touchdown in Western's 38-37 come-from-behind win against Emporia State.
He also ran in a successful two-point conversion in the fourth to put the Griffons up 38-31 with less than eight minutes to play.
"I didn't feel like there was any point in time where we were going to lose the game," Burton said of the comeback against Emporia. "I just knew we had to get going, but once we really started getting back to doing us, I felt good. I can't really explain the feeling, but...it felt good."
Burton used to be very quiet about his feelings in his first two years in the program. A talented player, but one who didn't vocalize much. That has completely changed in 2021, according to head coach Matt Williamson.
"Man, I love him to death," Williamson said of Burton. "When he came here, great kid, but was real immature. Trying to find his way, just like a lot of kids coming in. Over 2019, with him playing and having a little bit of success, having a year off with COVID and then coming out...it's a totally different person. It's absolutely awesome to see."
For Burton, it's a really a matter of trying to share positive energy and momentum with those around him.
"I've always kind of been, like, to myself," he admitted. "But, like, I'm bringing the energy on the field. So, like, now I want to be able to uplift others without just keeping all of that energy within myself."
Burton and the rest of the Missouri Western offense are trying to find a way to get that energy going right from the start - instead of falling behind and having to come back.
The Griffons have trailed at halftime in all three games so far this season. Missouri Western has scored 72 points after halftime this season compared to just 21 points in the first in the first halves.
Missouri Western fell behind 28-7 to Emporia State at halftime last week before outscoring the Hornets 31-9 over the final two quarters.
"It's not like we can't get things going," Burton said. "We showed it in the second half. We just have to come out the game like that. Because, if we come out the first half like that, there's not going to be a lot of people who will be able to run with us really."
Missouri Western faces a Washburn team (2-1) in Topeka this Saturday that could potentially run with the Griffons. The Ichabods are averaging 464 yards and 43 points per contest. They've scored more points than any team in the MIAA so far this season.
Their quarterback, multi-year starter and all-MIAA performer Mitch Schurig, has thrown for 732 yards (2nd MIAA) and six touchdowns so far in 2021. Their running back, Taylon Peters, is third in the league with 251 rushing yards. He's scored three touchdowns and averages more than six yards per carry.
Washburn is coming off of its first loss of the season last week - a 28-24 decision at No. 23 Nebraska-Kearney. It's another big challenge for the Griffons, who go for their third straight win this season and their third straight win against the Ichabods.
Washburn also ranks second in the MIAA in total defense and sacks, as well as third in pass defense.
But Burton knows that as long as he and his teammates play up to their potential for all four quarters, Missouri Western will give themselves a reasonable chance against any team they play.
"I just know they're going to play hard," Burton said, "but, we're going to play hard, too. So, hopefully it's a good game and we'll see where it takes us. We'll focus on what we have right now, each game, and at the end of the season, we'll see how we did."
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.