WARDSVILLE -- For the fifth time in program history, the Blair Oaks Falcons are coming off a state championship.
There aren’t many “firsts” remaining ahead of the program’s 48th season, but there is one that has eluded the Falcons for the past few decades: repeating as state champions.
Blair Oaks has won five state titles, all in even-numbered years: 2004, 2006, 2018, 2020 and 2022. Now the Falcons have their sights set on that first title in an odd-numbered year.
The plan for a repeat began in December, shortly after Blair Oaks’ 32-27 win against Lamar in the Class 2 state championship game at Faurot Field.
“The chip on their shoulder has been a really refreshing thing for me,” Blair Oaks coach Ted LePage said. “We may have won a state title, but these guys are hungry.”
The Falcons are returning most of their starters on defense. They’re also returning a handful of starters on offense.
But there will be a new starter at quarterback, following a 10-year tenure of the Hair brothers -- Jordan, Nolan and Dylan -- lining up behind center for Blair Oaks. And it’s Dylan Hair’s departure that has garnered a lot of attention this offseason.
“There’s only one Dylan Hair, we all realize that,” LePage said of the four-time all-state quarterback.
Still, Blair Oaks returns a total of 13 starters from last year’s state championship game, and several others picked up valuable playing time along the way during the Falcons’ 14-0 slate. A few more starters are returning from injury.
So far, LePage likes what he has seen from his players’ attention to detail.
“We’re concentrating on the little things,” he said. “As I tell the players every day, big things don’t happen if you don’t do the little things right.”
The Falcons begin the season with 75 players on the roster, the largest roster during LePage’s time in Blair Oaks. The Falcons have a senior class of 14 players, while the freshman class bookends the roster with 25 players.
“The nice thing is it’s quality in numbers, it’s not just quantity,” he said. “There are a lot of really good players, we’ve got a really good freshman class. People are excited about football, and that’s fun to see.”
The motivation is there. The talent is there. The numbers are there.
But there is still plenty of work to do.
“It’s a long road,” LePage said. “But if we can put the first step in -- we have to do the film work, we have to do the weight room work, we have to do all the things that make us who we are -- then we have the realization of what it takes to get there.
“Now, are you going to finish it?”
The numbers don’t lie. The Blair Oaks offense knows what it’s doing.
Since LePage returned to Blair Oaks prior to the start of the 2018 season, the Falcons have averaged at least 50 points per game in four of those five seasons. The one time they didn’t? They still averaged better than six touchdowns per game, at 43.8 points per contest in 2019.
In 2022, Blair Oaks averaged a program-record 55.2 points per game.
There may not be a Hair at quarterback this season, but there won’t be a complete overhaul of the Falcons’ offense, either.
“We’re going to stay with our base scheme,” LePage said. “We’re always going to have some kind of option in our offense. If that’s (run-pass option), that’s RPO. If that’s under-center option, that’s under-center option.
“I’m a big believer in looking at what you’re dealt, see what their strengths are and play to those strengths.”
Sophomore Tyler Bax takes over at quarterback for Blair Oaks. He was Hair’s backup last season and took several snaps in the Falcons’ lopsided wins.
“He is a great student of the game,” LePage said. “There wasn’t one day in the offseason where Tyler was in the weight room with me and did not ask me some kind of question about quarterbacking and football.”
Senior Wyatt Meldrum will back up Bax at quarterback.
“Wyatt has been steady,” LePage said. “He’s gotten better, he’s had a great camp.”
This season, the Falcons will start a pair of running backs.
Hayden Lackman rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman last season and scored 20 touchdowns.
Eli Luckett, a senior, was set to be the Falcons’ starting running back in 2022. However, he tore his ACL in the Jamboree and missed the entire season.
With two starting running backs, LePage said one of them will be the “hinge” player.
“If you watched Adam Hall last year, he carried the ball, he caught the ball, he blocked the ball,” LePage said. “… Eli is more of a running back, but if he plays that (hinge) position, we can do a little more with him than we did with Adam in the run game.”
Senior Brady Kerperin will back up Lackman and senior Jace Rackers will back up Luckett at running back.
Senior Joey Wilde and sophomore Warren Davis will start at the outside wide receiver positions and senior Nick Closser, the Falcons’ top returning receiver, will be the inside wide receiver.
“We’re capable of getting the ball to just about anybody,” LePage said.
Senior Jake Hagner and juniors Jaxon Engelbrecht and Jett Quirouet will be the backup wide receivers.
The offensive workload is expected to be much more balanced this season.
“We’re not one-dimensional at all, we’re going to be multidimensional,” LePage said. “There are going to be six different people that can handle the football.”
Blair Oaks returns two starting offensive linemen: senior Justin Atnip at right tackle and senior Cole Peters at right guard. Peters is one of four returning all-state players for the Falcons.
“He had a great offseason and he’s going to be a really good player for us,” LePage said of Peters.
Following the preseason scrimmage, junior Zach Bonnett won the starting role at center. On the left side of the line, junior Justin Koetting will start at guard and junior Carson Rustemeyer will start at tackle.
Beginning the season as backups on the line are sophomore Kaden Schulte and senior Jacob Hatcher at center, junior Brady Buechter at right guard, junior Brock Suthoff at left guard, sophomore Nolan Bennett at right tackle and senior Parker Bennett at left tackle.
LePage said last Friday’s Jamboree against Helias and Southern Boone was a good opportunity to evaluate the offensive line.
“We didn’t prepare, as far as scheming for the teams, and there were some stunts they threw at us that got us a little confused,” LePage said. “But as we watched film, it was really evident that we were making adjustments.
“We’ve got to win at the point of attack, we’ve got to change the line of scrimmage with these guys.”
There were question marks about the Blair Oaks defense entering the 2022 season. That’s not the case this fall.
After allowing 30.9 points per game in 2021, the Falcons nearly cut that number in half last year, giving up just 15.6 points per contest.
The Falcons return nine starters on defense, and seven of those starters have at least 25 games of experience. The defense has gone from a question mark to having a target on its back.
“When you’re on the top of the mountain, you better get some really rugged cleats,” LePage said, “because you’re going to slide down that mountain if you don’t dig your cleats in.”
Blair Oaks returns all four starting linemen in its 4-3 defense. All three linebackers are returning starters as well.
“Our front four are big, strong and long,” LePage said. “Our three linebackers are very capable. Secondary-wise, we have four guys who we really feel like can track and go get the ball.”
Junior Bryson Varner, a returning all-state player, will line up at left defensive end, while senior Jaxon Marshall is the defensive end on the right side.
Carson Luebbering -- the only freshman in any class to make the all-state team in 2022 -- is starting at left nose guard and Parker Bennett will be the right nose guard.
“They’re all long and athletic,” LePage said. “The other thing is they’re all cognitive players, so they think things out before they happen. The biggest thing we want them to do is to play reckless with their hair on fire.”
The backups on the defensive line are juniors Ayden Luckett, Brady Buechter and Justin Koetting, along with freshman Zayne West.
Kerperin, last year’s Class 2 defensive player of the year, returns at middle linebacker for the Falcons. Kerperin has already received multiple offers from Division I teams.
Last season, Kerperin led the Falcons with 160 tackles, nearly twice as many as the team’s second-leading tackler.
“When he slows down and makes his initial read, and then hits that missile and puts his fuse on, he’s a rocket and he comes flying,” LePage said. “He is a very, very good tackler, he’s a downhill player.”
At left outside linebacker will be senior Doug Blaha, who LePage has already designated as the defensive play-caller. Rackers will move to right outside linebacker after starting at safety last season.
Suthoff, junior Dylan Kliegel and sophomore Austin Nilges will be the backups at linebacker.
The two newcomers on the starting defense are both at cornerback: senior Joey Wilde on the left side and sophomore Sam Closser on the right side. Sophomore Shay Linhardt will be sharing time with Closser and junior Jackson Houston will back up Wilde.
Nick Closser and Hagner -- who suffered a season-ending knee injury last year -- will be the starting safeties, backed up by juniors Nolan Laughlin and Hank Lueckenotte.
“They both can run and they both can go get the ball,” LePage said of Closser and Hagner. “I think we’ll see a lot of picks come from them, I think they’re really going to grow as the season goes on.”
The improvement on defense played a big role in Blair Oaks’ success last season. However, LePage has already challenged his defense heading into Week 1. Last year, the Falcons allowed 42 points and 502 yards to the Maryville Spoofhounds to begin the season.
“What are you going to do to change?” LePage said. “Because they have a bunch of players back, too.”
Blair Oaks is well on its way to having a four-year starter on special teams.
Laughlin will begin his third season as the Falcons’ placekicker. Last year, he made 87 percent of his extra-point attempts and was third on the team in scoring with 93 points, trailing only Hair (184) and Lackman (122).
But it’s the kickoff game where Laughlin can make his biggest impact on special teams.
“He’s kicking it inside the 5-yard line, and a couple times into the end zone,” LePage said. “Last year, he was kicking it to the 15. The further we can set them back, the more chances we get, because it makes a longer field for opponents against our defense.”
In his first two seasons as kicker, Laughlin has made three field goals, with a long of 26 yards. During the preseason, LePage said Laughlin made a 45-yarder, one yard longer than the school record.
“Nolan was very accurate last year, but his leg strength was lacking,” LePage said. “He worked out in the offseason. He’s got incredible pop off his leg.”
Nick Closser will be the holder for Laughlin and Peters will be the long snapper.
Freshman Vander Halford will take over as the team’s punter.
“We’re really excited about his potential,” LePage said. “He gets it high, he turns it over. He does all the things we want out of a punter.”
Wilde and Lackman will be the kick returners and Nick Closser will be the punt returner.
The Falcons only get to play three non-conference games, but they’re making the most of them.
Blair Oaks starts the season with back-to-back games against Maryville and the Lutheran North Crusaders. Then, with the departure of the Versailles Tigers from the Tri-County Conference to the Ozark Highlands Conference, the Falcons filled that opening during Week 6 with a home matchup against the Seaman Vikings, a Class 5A school from Topeka, Kan.
Up first is the sixth annual Kickoff Classic against Maryville.
“You watch them and they’re everything you expect,” LePage said of the Spoofhounds. “We watched their Jamboree tape and they’re so clean. You don’t see a weakness, they don’t beat themselves.”
Maryville returns senior quarterback Derek Quinlin, who passed for 322 yards and scored five total touchdowns -- three passing, two rushing -- in last season’s 54-42 Blair Oaks win.
The Spoofhounds attempted 33 passes last season against the Falcons out of their wing-T offense.
“If you aren’t on your P’s and Q’s in the wing-T, they’ll rush for 400 yards on you like that,” LePage said as he snapped his fingers. “It was fun to watch them on their Jamboree film, because they are so efficient, but it’s scary that they have two distinctly different offenses that they can do.”
Quinlin is one of seven returning all-conference players for the Spoofhounds.
Senior Wesley Snead and junior Lucas Vierthaler made the all-conference team as both offensive and defensive linemen, while senior Delton Davis was an all-conference honoree at wide receiver and linebacker.
Senior offensive lineman Owen Wonderly, senior tight end Cooper Gastler and junior defensive lineman Major Scarbrough are also returning all-conference players for Maryville.
The Falcons have won their past five season openers against the Spoofhounds, but LePage still considers tonight’s matchup a “50/50 game.”
“We may have won a state title last year, but this is a program that is a lot better than everybody (credits them),” he said. “In 2020, they were in a state championship game. In 2017, they won a state title.
“The last 10 years, if you mention ‘Class 2 or Class 3 football’ in northwest Missouri, you’re talking Maryville to start it off. … This is a really hard opener, and I don’t think people really realize how good of a football team Maryville is.”
Kickoff for today’s game is 8 p.m. at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. The start time was pushed back one hour due to the forecast of excessive heat conditions.