When they last took the field, the Helias Crusaders were celebrating winning the Class 4 state football championship.
They won't be able to defend that title this season. Because of the Missouri State High School Activities Association's "championship" factor, the state title pushed the Crusaders to Class 5 this season.
"Strange, disappointing," Helias coach Chris Hentges said as the Crusaders prepare for tonight's season opener against the Hannibal Pirates at Ray Hentges Stadium. "But it is what it is. When private schools are only 10 percent of MSHSAA membership, we know we're going to be outvoted on everything.
"As a member of MSHSAA, we need to live with their rules and the rule is because of our success last year, we're going to move up a class and we can't change that."
They haven't spent a lot of time worrying about it.
"We just want to be the best version of ourselves, whether we would be in Class 4 or Class 5," Chris Hentges said.
The Crusaders don't return a lot of starting experience from that championship squad, just three players on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
But even though they didn't start, several returners had a hand in winning that state title.
"We have a lot of seniors and some of this year's juniors played really important roles on last year's state championship team," Hentges said. "If that builds confidence in our ability to win big football games this season, that's a great thing."
Offensively, the Crusaders have been a spread run-pass team the past few years.
And while a lot of the names have changed, that philosophy hasn't.
"It's up to us as coaches to work to find out what this team does best and make sure that's what we're calling on offense," Hentges said. "Having to replace players that have graduated, that comes with high school football."
Drew Miller, a junior, replaces three-year starter and Class 4 offensive player of the year Jacob Weaver at quarterback for the Crusaders.
The decision to name Miller the starter came at the start of fall camp.
"Drew's ability as a runner and a passer won the job for him," Hentges said. "We're looking forward to seeing him improve each and every week during practice because we know he has a lot of ability.
"He has all the attributes to be a very good quarterback for us."
The Crusaders are looking for Miller to be able to do a little bit of everything.
"Where his growth needs to be done quickly is to run all facets of our offense," Hentges said.
Weaver's experience allowed the team to go deep into the playbook with a lot of potential plays ready to go if needed. But this season, the playbook will be pared down, especially early in the season.
"Our game-plans need to be precise and to the point," Hentges said. "Not just for Drew, but our entire offense knows exactly what we're doing."
Tyler Sandbothe, a senior, will have the No. 2 quarterback spot.
"He got a lot of experience last year on the JV level and he can run our offense," Hentges said. "We have a lot of confidence in him."
Ryan Klahr, a senior who had several spectacular runs for the Crusaders last season, will be the No. 1 running back. Carson Brauner and Will Herrbold, both seniors, and junior Korbin Fisher also figure to see time at running back.
"They all have strengths that can help our offense," Hentges said. "Those guys are 2A, 2B and 2C. All three will play throughout the season and all three bring something different and we have confidence in all of them."
None of the four will be limited to just being a running back on offense.
"We have some packages where we can get them into the game as a slot receiver or even with a two-back system," Hentges said.
Cole Stumpe, an all-state receiver as a junior, will be a game-time decision tonight. He's been working in shorts and a helmet in practice while recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in 7-on-7 action in late June.
"We are hopeful he will play, but we want to see how he goes through practice and if he gets clearance to play," Hentges said. "We don't want to rush him back and potentially lose him again."
Billy Underwood, a senior, would start in Stumpe's absence at the slot receiver.
"We have complete trust in Billy to play that position well," Hentges said.
The tight end spot will feature a rotation of senior Sam Schell and junior Trey Bexten. Nate Roark, who could see time as slot receiver, will also play some tight end.
"We hae some flexability at that spot," Hentges said.
Harrison Miller and Kaden Hampson, both seniors, will start as wide receivers. Vinnie Calvaruso and Gage Wilde, also both seniors, will be the primary reserves.
"Those four guys will be getting most of the playing time this season," Hentges said.
Hentges likes the future at the wide receiver spots with junior Cale Sappenfield and sophomores Myles Gresham and Lucas Bloomer.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see some different faces later in the season get into the mix," Hentges said. "They just need some more work, more experience in the system."
The Crusaders will have five new starters on the offensive line.
Trevor Kopp, a junior, will start at left tackle, with sophomore Alex Cook starting at left guard. Cristian Prasad, a senior, will get the nod at center. Jack Klebba, a junior, will start at right guard, with senior Nicholas Heislen starting at right tackle.
Among the key reserves will be seniors Drew Distler, Tanner Nappier and Carson Drainer, along with junior Jace West.
"We have a lot of confidence in these guys," Hentges said.
But as it has been in the past, the starters figure to see a majority of the time for the Crusasders.
"It's always been our philosophy to keep our offensive line intact as much as possible," Hentges said. "If they are two-way guys and they need to get some rest, it would be on the defensive side.
"They have to make so many calls, whether it's for a pass-block or a run-block. And the more those guys work together as a group, they speak the same language."
The team has a lot of depth on the line on both sides of the football.
"We've got around 45 of our 95 players are offensive and defensive linemen," Hentges said. "We have unbelievable depth, which sparks competition and brings development.
"In my 30 years of coaching, I've never had that many kids playing on the line. In this day and age, it seems like everybody wants to be a skill guy, but we've got some linemen."
Just like the offense, there is no change to the philosophy on the defense.
"Defensively, we are who we are," Hentges said.
Starting at defensive ends will be Schell and Bexten. Nappier and Roark are among the reserves at the spot.
Klebba and Heislen will get the start at the tackle spots. Distler, Cook, senior Connor Corcoran and junior Trevor Kolb will be the rotation at tackle.
"We will rotate some guys through the tackle spots," Hentges said.
The Crusaders are still looking for someone to develop the ability to be a consistent pass rusher on the line.
"If there's one thing that needs to be improved, it's working on beating one-on-one pass blocks," Hentges said. "You don't always want to have to scheme pressure."
The Crusaders featured one of the top linebacking trios in the state last season with graduated seniors Ethan Holzhauser, the Class 4 defensive player of the year, and Isaac Lopez along with returning starter Wilde.
Wilde will be joined by Sandbothe and Harrison Miller at linebacker this season.
"They are improving each and every day," Hentges said. "The linebackers are the heart and soul of your defense and we have three great senior leaders in those spots. We will be counting on them to be a solid unit for us."
Fisher and senior Beau Bonderant will be the main reserves at linebacker.
"We have talent at that position, it's just a matter of getting that experience," Hentges said.
Hampson and Klahr will be the starting cornerbacks.
"They bring a lot of experience to our secondary, they played a lot for us last year," Hentges said. "They both play the ball really well in the air."
Grant Melloway, a senior, will be the primary reserve.
Stumpe was a starter at safety last season and will return to that spot when he gets back on the field.
Other safeties include Brauner — who had a key interception in the state title game against MICDS — Herrbold and senior Sam Hentges.
"When Cole comes back, we can have some really good depth there," Hentges said.
The Crusaders in the secondary will be steady group like the offensive line. with rest coming during their offensive positions.
The Crusaders have been strong on special teams for several years and that doesn't figure to change this fall.
Calvaruso returns at kicker and punter for the Crusaders. He was all-state as a kicker last season and has taken big strides in the offseason as a punter.
"He's really improved that part of his game," Hentges said.
Calvaruuso has the ability to put most of his kickoffs into the end zone if that's what the Crusaders choose to do.
"There's no better defense than that," Hentges said.
Roark will be the long snapper, replacing three-year starter Holzhauser. Sandbothe replaces two-year starter Zach Wolken as the holder.
"They are working well together as a group, making sure everyone is comfortable in their spots," Hentges said. "We've been hitting special teams pretty hard, we know how important that's going to be for us this season."
Klahr will be the primary punt returner, while Bondurant will handle kickoff return duties.
Hentges has added punt and kickoff returns as well as PATs and field goals to his coaching responsibilities this fall. Victor Bell will be coaching kickoff and punt defense as well as PAT and field goal blocks for the Crusaders.
The Crusaders also feature two new offensive line coaches. Scott Wilson, a Helias graduate who went on to play at Oklahoma State, is the varsity line coach.
"He's really putting his stamp on the offensive line," Hentges said.
Luke Yarnell, also a Helias graduate, has joined the staff to coach the younger linemen.
Brenton Wrigley, who played and was a graduate assistant at Lincoln, has joined the staff as an assistant on the defensive line.
The Crusaders bring the same goals into this season as they had entering the 2020 campaign where they swept all the available trophies.
Helias won city honors with victories against Capital City and Jefferson City, captured the first Central Missouri Activities Conference title and won the district crown to advance to the state bracket before defeating MICDS for the Clas 4 title.
"We have the same goals, we're not lowering our expectations because we're going to Class 5," Hentges said. "We know it will be a steeper mountain to climb, but we have the talent to succeed again this season."
This is the second of the two-year scheduling cycle in Missouri. But the Crusaders didn't play any of their non-conference opponents last season — Hannibal, Granite City, Ill., and Vianney — due to COVID-19.
After facing Hannibal tonight, the Crusaders are scheduled to host Granite City in Week 4 before wrapping up the regular season with a trip to St. Louis to face Vianney.
"It will be an exciting year, we're looking forward to the challenge," Hentges said.
Five of first seven games this season are at home, with a pair of trips to Columbia to face Battle and Rock Bridge mixed in.
"We have to make sure we stay in the moment," Hentges said. "We can't look down the road, 100 percent of our focus has to be on the task at hand, and that's who we are playing that week."
Game time today is 7 p.m.