The Tigers will try to retain their focus with the news that their coach is retiring after 33 years at Waynesville

WAYNESVILLE — The offseason has officially closed and the Waynesville Tigers' first football game is tomorrow.

That's exciting enough as it is, but adding to the drama was the Waynesville school district announcing Head Coach Rick Vernon's retirement on Wednesday afternoon.

Vernon though, said that after his announcement he and his team will be moving on.

“We're not even looking at that,” Vernon said. “That's all over with. The [administration] just wanted to announce that earlier, but it's forgotten about. We're ready for the first ball game.”

Defensive Coordinator Karl Wilking said it was tough to hear that his old coach, and coworker for 23 years, announce that he will leave after the season, even though he knew about it for some time.

“It was still a shock,” Wilking said. “But it's been great. We've developed a great friendship throughout the years. He's done a lot for my family. I'm very appreciative for the opportunity [to work with him].”

But like Vernon said earlier, the Tigers have put the announcement behind them and they were back to work after school on Wednesday, planning for the Zizzers trip into town on Friday.

West Plains' quarterback Sam Hall will return after an ACL injury that sidelined him following the fifth game of the season last year.

He has shown some improvement in his passing, with a nice display at the seven-on-seven meet in Springfield, which West Plains coach Steve Ary said is a testament to his work ethic.

“The main thing he's done is that he's always working on his craft,” Ary said. “He has a quarterback coach in St. Louis and he'll drive up there to work. He does it 365 days a year, it's not a seasonal thing for him. That's a lot of commitment out of that from him and his dad.”

Ary said it has helped him dramatically improve his accuracy, which he believes will be the junior quarterback's calling card this year.

Despite that, Wilking said they're going to dare Hall to pass on them.

“We're going to stop their run game and make them pass the football,” Wilking said. “[Hall] can throw, but just like every quarterback, if you put pressure in his face, he will make a mistake.”

The Zizzers actually beat the Tigers back in June at the Ozark Conference seven-on-seven tournament, but Vernon said that holds little water to the Waynesville squad.

“You can't put a lot into that,” he said. “We know from last year and watching him in the jamboree some of the things he can do.”

Ary hopes that will be a mistake.

“I know defensive coordinators will say they're going to load the box because we can't throw the football, but I think we can,” he said. “I think they'll have to defend every inch of the field. I think we'll be a well balanced offense.”

On the flip side, Ary said he doesn't have much to study with on Waynesville's senior quarterback Varon Martinez.

Last year when the two teams met, Martinez wasn't the quarterback.

“We played them week one last year, so I haven't got to see him play,” Ary said. “We did see him in the seven-on-seven though, and I was impressed. I've watched some of him on tape and I thought, holy cow, he's an athlete. He's a dual-threat quarterback, and you hate those guys.”

To try to slow Martinez down, as well as senior running back Jalen Thomas, the Zizzers are going to throw their multiple front defense at the Tigers.

“We'll go 40 and 30 and we have some five and six-man front defenses,” Ary said, adding it's a new concept for West Plains. “I couldn't do that in my first couple of years, but our package has grown little by little over the years.”

For Offensive Coordinator Derick Heflin, that doesn't mean a whole lot of adjusting. Just a simple conversation with the offensive line.

“We don't have a whole lot of blocking schemes, and our linemen have been here all summer, so they're pretty sound in what they do,” Heflin said. “We also have a lot of veteran experience — we will start four guys that have started for two to three years. So, I don't think it will give us as much of a problem as much as it would have in the past.”

The plays the fans see, and the ones the Zizzers will have to defend, will be similar to what was shown at the scrimmage earlier this month and at the jamboree, Heflin said.

But there will be a few new things he has been hiding up his sleeve.

“We're going to do our stuff,” Heflin said. “We're going to run the football first, then use play action and screens. [At the jamboree], we moved the ball really well and really only ran one or two pass plays and two run plays. So, when we open the playbook a little more, I think sky is the limit.”

Ary is thinking the same thing with his team.

Last year the Zizzers had seven sophomores starting on offense and four on defense, which was a recipe for disaster, Ary said.

This year, it's a little different story.

“We have 40 upperclassmen instead of 19,” Ary said. “So we have a lot more experience and a lot more depth.”

The Zizzers, for the time being, don't expect to be starting any sophomores.

It was also announced on Wednesday that kickoff in Waynesville has been nudged back to 7:30 p.m. with the weather forecasted to be in the mid 90s. So it's going to be a rough marathon on Friday night.

That hasn't dampened the mood at all in Waynesville.

“We get great excitement out of [the first game of the season],” Vernon said. “We always have a great turnout and our kids are always ready to play that first ball game.”

It'll be the 33rd, and last, first game of Vernon's career Friday night. None of which he could pick to relive over another.

“It's still just as exciting now as it was back then,” Vernon said.