The biggest jumps for teams under new coaching regimes typically come around year three. For West Ouachita, the Chiefs are hoping to make that jump despite moving up to Class 5A.
Instead of competing with Neville, Bastrop and Franklin Parish in Class 4A, third-year head man Matt Middleton and his Chiefs will have to elbow their way in at the big boy table with the likes of West Monroe, Ruston and Ouachita Parish. But if the Chiefs remain healthy in 2019, Middleton feels his club can surprise a few folks around Ouachita Parish.
“We know it’s a process, but this is by far the most excited I’ve been being here because we’ve played so many young kids the last two years that these young kids and young pups are older and they’re veterans in play,” Middleton said. “I love this team, and I’m excited about it. I think if we can stay healthy we can shock some people.”
Of course, the Chiefs are going to have to improve upon last year’s 2-8 record. Not only did West Ouachita fail to reach the postseason in Class 4A, but the Chiefs could not get off the field on third down and allowed 34 points per contest. That’s why Middleton took over the defense and shifted to a 4-3 scheme this season.
“We are much more athletic on the defensive side of the ball than we were a year ago,” Middleton said. “We do believe in putting best players on defense. Made a precedent to do that. For us to win games we have to stop people.”
Among the changes on defense was a position switch that will allow Montana King to use his size on the defensive line rather than linebacker. Middleton feels the move makes the Chiefs more athletic, and King feasted in the trenches as a result.
“He had a phenomenal spring,” Middleton said. “It fits his size and weight better. He moves extremely well up front.”
Devin Butler returns as a starting defensive end alongside King, but the back seven will feature fresh faces galore. Among those will be Luke Middleton, who will take over middle linebacker duties. Luke Middleton suffered a season-ending injury before the season last fall, which was one of many injuries the Chiefs endured in 2018.
For any West Ouachita fan who might be sweating the fresh faces on defense, those same fans have to feel good about the continuity returning on offense. With big bodies returning up front and a stable of experienced backs like Tobias Owens, Alfred Cole and Kohl Nolan, West Ouachita’s ground game should be effective like last year. And it showed in a spring game against Franklin Parish last week.
“Offensively, we established ourselves a year ago, and we can run it on just about everybody,” Middleton said. “The biggest question mark entering this season for us was the defense.”
The quarterback competition wasn’t resolved in the spring, as Brendon Crawford took most of the snaps with Brady Ryals missing practices for baseball.
“In fairness to (Ryals), he needs a little bit more time before we make a decision,” Middleton said. “I’ve never gone into a season where I’ve played two quarterbacks, but I’m not opposed to it either. Brady can play quarterback or receiver if we need him to, so that’s a good option. He’s electric at both, but we’ll carry that competition into fall camp.”
Whoever is at quarterback will certainly lean on West Ouachita’s size upfront and returning starters Chandler Simpson and Michael Bohn.
“That’s one thing we certainly have is size,” Middleton said. “We have a lot of it.”
To play with the big boys in 5A, that size certainly helps level the playing field early on.