Members of the Jefferson City Jays football team hopped on a bus and headed to Columbia on a cold November night last year to watch Rock Bridge take on Hazelwood Central in a Class 6 state semifinal game.
Head coach Ted LePage listened closely on the ride home as his players discussed their desire to be the ones competing, not spectating, in 2014.
"I know when we came back, everybody was thinking, "We can get there. We can get there,'" LePage, now entering his ninth season at the helm, said Monday.
The trip might have been a little more painful for the Jays after suffering a 48-18 loss to Rock Bridge in the first round of districts last year - exactly one week after Jefferson City claimed a 31-21 win against the Bruins in the final game of the regular season.
But the journey north also gave the Jays some added motivation entering the offseason.
"I think it has definitely fueled the fire - especially when you sit back and start looking and you're like, "Oh my gosh, that team used that momentum to carry themselves to the state finals," LePage said.
So far, Jefferson City's drive hasn't faded and LePage doesn't think it ever will.
"We are going to go out and be a very competitive football team each week," LePage said. "I've seen nothing short of that through our offseason, starting last year right after we were done with our season.
"Again, we're not going to be the biggest, we're not going to be the strongest, we're not going to be the fastest, we're not going to be the prettiest. But by golly, we'll line up for every snap and get after it as hard as we can."
Jefferson City returns eight starters on each side of the ball from last year's team that went 6-4 before falling short against Rock Bridge. And while the Jays do have some experience on their side, they also have some big holes to fill.
Isaac Roling will get the nod at quarterback in place of Gabe Marcantonio, who threw for 1,115 yards and nine touchdowns last season. As a senior, Marcantonio also led Jefferson City's ground attack with 800 yards rushing and 12 TDs.
"The nice thing is, I think Gabe had to carry our offense last year because we were so inexperienced," LePage said. "He was just about the only player coming back with experience."
That won't be the case this season.
The Jays return veteran running backs Elijah Pittman and Denzel Wilson to help lighten load for Roling in his first season under center. Pittman had 588 yards rushing on 112 carries and scored seven touchdowns, while Wilson carried the ball 53 times for 259 yards an three TDs to help pace the offensive attack for Jefferson City in 2013.
"We were going to try to get them in the backfield together at certain points, but we felt like we might be better off by spelling them and let one take one series, one take another," LePage said. "They're two different, dynamic backs, so we're going to use both of their strengths to our advantage."
Jefferson City also returns a veteran receiving core, including Ripken Dodson, Jake Pridgin, Daniel Ellinger and Bryce Beckley. Jacob Gourley, Floyd Ramsey, Adam Huff and Adam Roettgen will provide added depth at that position.
Pridgin led the group last year with 28 catches for 284 yards and six touchdowns, while Dodson was close behind with 20 receptions for 218 yards.
"We feel very comfortable with our receivers," LePage said. "They know where they need to get to and Isaac's done a great job of finding the windows of where to throw to."
OVERSET FOLLOWS:Roling, a senior, isn't completely new to Jefferson City's system after completing 5-of-6 passes for 98 yards as a backup to Marcantonio in 2013.
At 5-foot-5, 155 pounds, he is not the prototypical quarterback, but LePage is confident Roling can get the job done for the Jays this season.
"He's a very respected player, everybody plays for him," LePage said. "He has the talent to play the position. His biggest factor is just his size right now, but there have been a lot of guys that have been questioned about their size that prove people wrong. I think Isaac will do that."
J.T. Bohlken and Gunner See will play reserve roles at quarterback for Jefferson City, which averaged 27 points per game last season.
"Our offense may look a little bit different," LePage said. "It may be a little more structured around our strengths this year, which is our experience on our offensive line and the running back and receiver positions."
The Jays return three starters on the offensive line, including left tackle Anthony Murphy, left guard Brendan Baker, and center Tanner Jenkins.
Elijah Henderson will get the nod at right guard after assuming a reserve role in 2013, while Charles Nelson will start at right tackle after seeing significant playing time as a sophomore. Daniel Miller, Remy Hanrahan, Kyle Mealy, Cole Heidbreder, Zach Bolton and Ryan Mohlman will also be in the mix throughout the year.
"They're all pretty good size," LePage said. "We're not giants, but we've got a bunch of guys who are really strong and have dedicated themselves in the offseason."
Defensively, Jefferson City loses a key piece in Hayden Strobel, who led the team with 110 total tackles while helping the Jays limit opponents to 24.8 points per game in 2013.
The team does have some heavy hitters returning to help fill the void, however.
"You lose a guy like Hayden, who was a big piece, but when we turn around and look, we have four linebackers who all started for us at different positions last year," LePage said. "Maybe we don't have the one big guy you turn to, but we've got four really, really good players with incredible amounts of experience to help shoulder the load."
Austin Gerloff leads the attack at inside linebacker after recording 87 tackles as a junior. Travis Burris joins Gerloff on the inside after splitting time on the outside and as a defensive end last season.
Austin Holland and Paul Harris will patrol the outside, while Alex Tharp, Jalen Martin, Adam Weaver and Nathaniel Bustamante all figure to be in the mix for Jefferson City.
LePage said depth on the defensive line will be another strong suit for the Jays, who open the season with a home game against McCluer North at 7 p.m. Friday. The group is led by Jermiez Booker, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound defensive end who has proven in offseason workouts to be the strongest player - and among the fastest - on the team.
"He's going to be very exciting to watch - very, very fast; very, very strong," LePage said. "He's very relentless."
Ryan Adams, a starter from last year, will line up at nose guard, while Isaac Templeton, Tekoya Sage, Zane Coleman and Austin Kleindienst will all compete for playing time.
In the secondary, Darryl Williams and Zach Bond are both returning to the corners, while Izaya Sands will patrol one of the safety positions after starting half the games last season. Williams was third on the team with 53 total tackles to go along with one interception, while Bond had 18 stops and one pick as a junior.
Isaac Moreland, a sophomore, will also start at safety, while Dennis Barnes, Alex Vogel, Rashaun Woods, Gavin Strobel and Julian Stokes could all see time in the secondary.
Bohlken will kick and punt for the Jays after converting on 6-of-9 field-goal attempts and 12-of-13 extra-point attempts as a sophomore last year. Bohlken has already proven he has the leg to kick from long range by nailing a 52-yard field goal during Jefferson City's scrimmage last week.
LePage would prefer to score touchdowns, but he is also confident the Jays can come away with at least three points if they get the ball to the opponents' 35-yard line.
"Statistics show that if you can get three points every time you're on that side of the 35, you're going to win a lot of football games," LePage said. "That's a big asset for us, but I think J.T.'s biggest asset for us is his athletic ability and being able to kick the ball anywhere on kickoffs and being able to do so much on punts."
Jefferson City will play most of its games at home this season as the Jays are set to host McCluer North, Christian Brothers College High School, Hickman, Rogers (Ark.), Rock Bridge, and Confluence Preparatory Academy.
The team will travel to De Smet for Week 4, before ending the regular season with games at Battle and Rockhurst.
"If you go down the list, it's as comparable to being one of the toughest (schedules) in the state of Missouri every year," LePage said. "Our kids have come to expect that, anticipate it and like it."