By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
Missouri Western football has enjoyed an upward trajectory since Matt Williamson took over as head coach.
After a 4-7 finish in his first season in 2017, the Griffons went 7-5 in 2018 and then polished off 2019 with a 9-3 record and a second straight Live United Bowl victory. It was Missouri Western's best finish since 2012.
Just a few months after the Griffons' 35-14 win over Henderson State in December 2019, 634 days ago, the world shut down due to COVID-19 and the MIAA football season was canceled.
About 20 months later, there's still some unknowns, but the excitement surrounding the start of a new, full and normal season is palpable.
"You can just see it when you walk into a team room," Williamson said. "You walk into a meeting room or on the practice field. You're just like, 'Yup. It's happening.' And you can kind of just see it in their eyes. It's pretty cool to watch. I can't wait to just say 'go,' open the gates and see what happens."
The Griffons are picked to finish 5th in the MIAA by the league's coaches and 4th by the media.
Williamson returns nine total starters and 34 letter winners from the 2019 team, including three of the top four tacklers and three of the top four receivers.
The top tackler from 2019 is now fifth-year senior linebacker Evan Chohon, who led the Griffons with 94 tackles in that season.
As one of eight 'super seniors,' Chohon is excited to simply play a season that will actually count in the record books.
"It's nice to be able to play for something," Chohon said. "We're playing for the MIAA championship and we're getting the possibility to play for a natty. So, I think the players are excited to be playing against some other teams in the conference."
Despite a canceled MIAA season, Missouri Western played two games last fall - one at No. 11 Central Arkansas (L 52-10) from the FCS ranks and another against league rival Pittsburg State (L 20-7) at Spratt Stadium.
The Griffons had scheduled games against West Texas A&M and Nebraska-Kearney in November, but both were canceled.
Even so, getting two games in 2020 proved valuable for Missouri Western, especially for the seven true freshmen who got to play in them.
"We went (to Central Arkansas) with about 65 percent of our starters," Williamson said. "If we had a full team, I was going down there ready to compete. For them to see that and be challenged at that level, it only raises you if you're a good competitor, and I believe we have a lot of good competitors in our football program."
Two of the strongest competitors in Missouri Western's program this offseason have been sophomore Anthony Vespo and freshman Reagan Jones - both vying for the role of starting quarterback.
While Vespo is expected to be under center to start things off, Williamson says Jones will be involved in the offense one way or another.
"(Jones) may not be playing quarterback," Williamson said. "He might be at another position. So, we can do some different things with him. He's just a great athlete. So, we'll work him into the game plan a little bit, and we'll kind of go from there."
The 2021 schedule is a return to normal with 11 MIAA games on the docket. Missouri Western opens the season at Central Oklahoma on Thursday night at 7 p.m. The game will be carried live on KFEQ Radio (680 AM, 95.3 FM) with pregame starting at 6 p.m.
Missouri Western is unproven in some spots. Three of the top four running backs are gone from 2019. Vespo is growing into a starting role at quarterback. Heck, there's only one senior on the offensive depth chart.
Defense could be a strength for the Griffons, as they return seven starters on that side, including five seniors. One of those five is senior and All-American corner Sam Webb.
Missouri Western struggled some defensively in 2019, giving up 440 yards per game and allowing 45 points or more in each of their three losses.
With defensive coordinator Justin Richter back for a fifth season, Chohon feels confident their unit is ready to take a big step forward.
"Yeah we had some rough patches in 2019, but we have a lot of guys returning," Chohon said. "With (coach) Richter coming back, a lot of us guys on the defense have become a lot more vocal and talking to each other and we really think we can kind of take the MIAA by storm."
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