The expectations are sky-high for the Strafford Indians football team this fall, and for good reason.
A year removed from a 10-1 season, which ended with a district semifinal loss to state-ranked Mountain Grove, the Indians return 10 starters on each side of the ball and are poised for a run at a district title.
Perhaps Strafford plays deeper into November, too.
“We have so much experience,” said senior wide receiver Brady Collier, who scored five touchdowns last year before going down with a season-ending foot injury in the second week of the season. “It’s a great feeling to know that everyone has experience out there with us.”
One area where Strafford does lack experience is at the game’s most important position, quarterback. Last year’s gunslinger, Jacob Wade, has graduated and is playing collegiately at Evangel University.
His replacement is junior Chanler Collins, who led the Strafford JV to undefeated seasons each of the past two years.
“He’s done great,” said senior wide receiver Dallas Hester, a unanimous first team all-conference selection last year after making 59 catches for 1,071 yards and 16 touchdowns. “The only thing different between he and Wade is he doesn’t have a big arm like Wade. He reads (the defense) well and gets the ball out quick, but doesn’t have the big arm.”
Few have a cannon like Wade, who threw for more than 2,500 yards and 31 touchdowns last year. Despite losing their all-state quarterback, the Indians are more than comfortable with Collins running the show.
“I feel really confident in him,” Collier said. “Chanler loves to study the game and is really smart at picking defenses apart. I think he’ll do just fine.”
Among the challenges for Collins will be mastering Strafford’s expansive offensive playbook, which includes more than 360 plays.
“We threw the whole playbook at them,” said coach Tim Hester, now in his eighth year leading the program. “We won’t use them all in one game, of course, but we’ll study film and then pick out plays that we know will work against a team we’re going to play.”
Aiding Collins are the 10 returning starters on offense, including skill-position players Collier, Hester and Dalton Taylor. Taylor accounted for 20 rushing touchdowns last year.
But if Strafford is to improve on last year’s impressive season and advance far into November, playing physical every week will be important.
“When we played Mountain Grove in the districts (last year), we got overpowered,” Collier said. “We weren’t as strong or as big. I feel like if we play more physical or play like we’re bigger, we’ve got a great chance to win districts and move on from there.”
Last year, Strafford’s district was the toughest in the state, with three teams ranked in the state’s top five in the eight-team field: Strafford, Mountain View-Birch Tree Liberty and Mountain Grove.
To top it off, the winner of the district had to face Lamar, which has now won three consecutive Class 2 state championships.
This year, however, the landscape looks different.
Mountain Grove has been bumped to Class 3, and MV-BT Liberty and Lamar each lost a majority of its key pieces to graduation.
“I feel pretty good about the situation we’re in now,” coach Hester said.
A perfect storm seems to be developing, one that could lead Strafford deep into the state playoffs.
“We know some of the teams in our district are down,” Taylor said. “Lamar is obviously still one of the top teams. I think our expectations are to get all the way to Lamar and give it our all against them.
“I think a district championship is what we’re expecting this year.”
Coach: Tim Hester, eighth season
Last year: 10-1, lost in district semis
Key returners: WR/DB Dallas Hester (sr., 6-1, 150), RB/DB Dalton Taylor (sr., 6-1, 165), K Alex Castillo (sr., 5-9, 135), OL/DE Andrew Falk (sr., 6-0, 190), LB/FB/P Samuel Morton (jr., 5-11, 185), LB Zach Stow (sr., 6-0, 170), OL/DE Kody Noe (sr., 6-0, 195), WR/DB Kyle Foley (sr., 6-1, 165), WR/DB Brady Collier (sr., 5-10, 175), RB/DB Jacob Eden (jr., 5-9, 175), OL/DL Cory Kesterson (sr., 6-2, 280)