CALIFORNIA, Mo. — Last fall, California'a football season was defined by an opportunistic defense and regular season dominance in conference play.
Highlights of the 2015 season included shutout wins against Tri-County Conference foes Versailles, Hallsville and Warsaw.
After a 6-3 (6-1 conference) regular season, the wheels came off in California's Class 3 District 6 postseason opener against Southern Boone. The Pintos lost 48-21 to an Eagles team they had beaten a month earlier.
The Pintos drop down to Class 2 District 4 for this season, and while that's hardly the only change for head coach Marty Albertson's squad heading into the year, there's a healthy dose of continuity mixed in as well, and that starts with the quarterback position.
Last year, as a sophomore, Jacob Wolken was thrust into starting duty in the first quarter of California's Week 1 game versus Boonville. Though he struggled early, it didn't take Wolken long to get a firm grasp on the offense. By the end of the season, he was among the area passing leaders.
Wolken enters his junior season entrenched as the starter. With good size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and above-average athleticism, Albertson thinks he'll only continue to improve going forward.
"I think the kids understand that he took over leadership last year and he's only gotten better at being a leader this year," Albertson said. "He's kind of a quiet kid, but he leads by example a lot.
"He works hard all the time and gives you 100 percent all the time. That's a big asset for us because the young kids look up to that and see what kind of work ethic you have to have to be successful."
Wolken, however, will be without three of his top targets from last season, as wide receivers Landon Mouse, Ethan Hodges and Josh Woodruff all graduated. California often started with four-wideout sets last season, and only junior Kyle Hofstetter returns from that quartet.
Hofstetter and senior Luke Freeman figure to be California's top receiving options entering the year, and Albertson admits the team will shuffle offensive sets around the personnel he has.
"We will change some things," he said. "We were blessed with a lot of speed last year and probably this year, you'll see more two-wideout sets with a tight end and an extra running back.
"You kind of have to change with your personnel in high school. You have what you have."
At running back, senior Gunner Baquet is in line to get the lion's share of carries. After being in the mix as part of a crowded and banged-up backfield last season, Baquet will see plenty of the ball and he'll be running behind an experienced offensive line led by seniors Hunter Bookout, Dylan Silvey and Grant Hofstetter.
"Gunner has great speed," Albertson said. "He developed through last year. He probably wasn't our starter at the beginning of the year, but we lost four running backs early, so he was kind of pressed into double duty.
"He had always played defense and hadn't played much running back. He had to learn where the blocking is, how to set up blocks and where the cuts should be, but with another year's experience, you'll see him get a lot of yards this year."
Defensively, Baquet, Freeman and Kyle Hofstetter will feature prominently in the secondary, arguably the Pintos' top unit a season ago. Mouse, Hodges and Woodruff all contributed heavily to a defensive back unit that snagged its share of interceptions, and whether or not that trio's turnover production can be replicated is one of California's big questions on the defensive side of the ball.
"I don't like to sit back, I like to attack on defense," Albertson said. "I like to force mistakes and not sit in one spot and let them get comfortable in their blocking schemes. We're going to try to move around and use our quickness, because our defense will be really quick. We'll use it to be an asset for us."
Though the presence of Hunter Heimericks on the defensive line will be hard to replace, the Pintos will have a solid returning trio at linebacker. Senior Sam Kirby will anchor the middle of the unit after missing last season with an injury, and juniors Liam Glenn and Jacob Adams are back as starters on the outside
"Last year, we had five or six sophomores start on defense," Albertson said. "This year they're juniors and that makes a big difference. They've had a year's experience and again, I thought they improved throughout the year. Hopefully we'll just continue improving from where we were last season."
Early on, Albertson's message to the players is a simple one — finish.
"We have to finish every play and practice like we play," he said. "You have to give 100 percent on every play and hopefully we can get that stressed early so they know practice is not a time to take plays off, it's a time to work hard and make yourself better and push each other.
"I think the kids are buying into that and you'll see a big improvement. We're not the biggest team so we have to be in better shape than everybody else. I know last year we won some games in the fourth quarter and we have to play all four quarters this year and be in shape to do that."
With the Pintos playing their first game Saturday night against Monett, the onus will be on the offensive line. With a lack of size and some inexperience in the trenches, Albertson will get creative between the tackles.
"We'll trap quite a bit and try to pull our guards and get angles and use our quickness," he said. "We have to have communication on the offensive line. We can't have breakdowns and let linebackers come free without anybody taking them."
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