WARDSVILLE — The Blair Oaks Falcons are the reigning Class 2 state champions, but they won't get the opportunity to defend their title.
After dropping to Class 2 for the 2018 season, Blair Oaks begins 2019 back in Class 3, where it had been from 2014-17.
Which class the Falcons are in doesn't bother Blair Oaks coach Ted LePage. He's more concerned about his team taking care of business in the regular season and having home-field advantage when the district playoffs begin.
"You want to be that home seed. That's the only thing that you look at," LePage said. " We don't care where we're at (by class), we get to play somebody in a football game."
Entering the second year in his second stint at Blair Oaks, LePage said players are trusting him and the rest of the coaching staff more, and vice versa.
"If you play hard and you practice hard, we're going to trust you because you see it on the field," he said.
"If that trust is there, that's where you build a good program and a good team."
This isn't the same Blair Oaks team that finished 15-0 a year ago, but there are new leaders ready to take the reins for a team that has won its last 38 regular-season games.And that will be put to the test tonight against Maryville at William Jewell College in Liberty. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
"If there's one thing that's consistent with history you'd better change, you'd better grow and you'd better move forward," LePage said.
THE 2018 BLAIR Oaks offense did plenty of rewriting in the program's record books.
Last season, the Falcons broke 17 offensive records, one of which was averaging 53.2 points per game. Their quarterback, Nolan Hair, graduated with his name next to eight records.
And for the seventh consecutive year, Blair Oaks will begin the season with a Hair behind center. Freshman Dylan Hair will guide the Falcons' run-pass option offense at quarterback.
"The way he can throw the football is comparable to the guys we've had before," LePage said. "The way he can run the football is different. He can run the football, and run it extremely well."
LePage said there will be growing pains this season for the younger Hair, but he appreciates how quickly he can absorb all the information the coaching staff throws at him, "like a sponge."
"He's been asking questions," LePage said. "He watches film, he wants to be better, he wants to get better."
Backing up Hair at quarterback will be juniors Cade Stockman and Gavin Wekenborg.
"They've both been in the system for a year," LePage said. "Both of them played and contributed last year."
Senior Riley Lentz will start at running back in Blair Oaks' one-back spread offense. He led the Falcons with 946 yards rushing last season and 15 touchdowns.
"We know he's going to be a catalyst for us, so we tweaked some of our offense to fit his needs, and fit what he brings to help this team win," LePage said.
Juniors Jayden Purdy and Josh Bischoff will also work their way into the backfield this season. LePage said Purdy has a great first-step burst, while Bischoff has elusiveness in his running ability.
Blair Oaks' offense will call for four wide receivers, starting with junior Jake Closser. During last Friday's Jamboree at the Falcon Athletic Complex, Closser demonstrated his ability to make catches downfield, as well as running end-around sweeps to show his versatility.
"Jake's going to have a really great year," LePage said. "He's really bought in and is going to go as hard as he can.
"He can really run, and that's the thing I think gets lost with seeing him. His speed is really explosive, and I think we'll get to see that on display this year."
Starting at the other inside wide receiver position is sophomore Reid Dudenhoeffer, a newcomer to the Falcons.
"Once he gets his sea legs underneath him, you're going to see some really unique things out of him," LePage said.
Manning the outside receiver positions are juniors Carson Prenger and Cobi Marble. Lining up Closser and Prenger on the same side could present problems for defenses.
"When (Carson) and Jake are standing next to each other in a set, I'd want to put three or four guys over on that combination, if I was a defensive coordinator," LePage said.
Coming in at backup at receiver will be senior Sam Luebbering, juniors Ian Nolph and Levi Haney and sophomore Cadon Garber. Stockman could also see some time at receiver.
Blair Oaks will boast plenty of size on its offensive line. The Falcons' five starters have an average height of 6-foot-1 and an average weight of 230 pounds.
"I really like where our offensive line is headed," LePage said. "I like the physicality. They're big, but they're not bulky. They're big, rangy guys that are physical."
Senior Andrew Luebbering (5-10, 225) is the Falcons' only returning all-state player on offense. He will play at right guard this season.
"He practices hard every day, he plays hard every day," LePage said. "He's a great individual, he's going to be an all-around terrific player for us this year."
The other returning lineman, senior Shane Gillmore (6-1, 210), will make the move from right tackle to left guard.
"His offseason was incredible," LePage said. "He maybe had the best offensive growth of any of our players, so we're going to start pulling our guards more."
Three newcomers will fill out the rest of the line. Senior Lathe Willson (6-3, 270) will be at right tackle, while seniors Blake Moore (6-2, 220) and Wyatt Moore (6-2, 225) will be at left tackle and center, respectively.
Backups on the line include senior Adam Jurgensmeyer, juniors Carson Bax, James Thomson and Zack Wilbers, and sophomore Brysan Jeffries.
"If you have guys that have an edge on the offensive line, it allows you to change the line of scrimmage," LePage said.
And unlike last year's season opener, Maryville will know the run-pass option is coming.
"Going into Week 1, we have a bunch more in our holster than we did last year because of the players' familiarity with (the system)," LePage said.
THE DEFENSE HAD just as much success during Blair Oaks' state championship run last season.
The Falcons held opponents to 8.5 points per game, recording shutouts in one-third of their contests. And several of those defensive players will be back in 2019.
"What we try not to do with our defense is overload them with rules and regulations," LePage said. "We have strict rules, but we try not to overload them, and we let them play.
"We don't want to have to do things to invent the defense. We want to play our defense and let our guys read their keys and go play."
Blair Oaks will stick with a 3-4 front on defense.
Up front and center will be senior Rylee Niekamp at nose guard. The returning all-stater had four sacks last season, and LePage is looking for that number to go higher this season.
"In the Jamboree the other night, our defensive coordinator and defensive line coach were just beside themselves at the amount of times he got held," LePage said. "You can't block the young man one-on-one. He's a force, he's just so strong and so quick that you either have to double-team him or you have to hold him."
At defensive tackle, senior Adam Hughes will start on the right side, while Bax will be on the left side.
Hughes was a backup at linebacker last season, and when a spot opened on the line, LePage moved him forward.
"With him being so physically strong he's able to use that leverage and strength, and get underneath you," LePage said.
Senior Ben Hoelscher will back up Niekamp at nose guard, while Jeffries and sophomore Austin Lange will be backups at the tackle positions.
Most of Blair Oaks' defensive experience returns at linebacker.
"The thing I like most about them is communication," LePage said of his linebacker corps. "Those four guys communicate, and that is huge.
"We're able to interchange them as moving parts, and that's what makes this defense so much more difficult for an offense to prepare for."
Sam Luebbering, another returning all-state player, led the Blair Oaks defense with 147 tackles — 15 for loss — and 11.5 sacks last season.
"Every snap, he just brings it," LePage said. "With him and Rylee inside, it's funny how quickly we watch centers and guards wear down. You can withstand it for the first half, but it's that second half (that gets to them). Those two just seem to never let up."
Stockman and senior Kamron Morriss both return at outside linebacker. Morriss was second on the team with 14 tackles for loss, while Stockman — the backup quarterback — has shown an ability to stay one step ahead of the opposing offense.
LePage also described both players as "hybrids," saying they can stay at linebacker, move up to the line or cover a receiver man-to-man.
Senior Kyler Griep will join Luebbering as the other middle linebacker.
"He is physical, and we think before the end of the year, you're going to be seeing his name a lot on the tackles sheet," LePage said of Griep. "He had 22 tackles on kickoff alone last year. He is a great open-field tackler."
Other linebackers in the mix for the Falcons are Jurgensmeyer, junior Nico Canale and sophomores Griffin Herst and Zach Goeller.
In the secondary, Prenger returns as an all-state safety, tallying 99 tackles last season. He also recorded seven blocked kicks on special teams.
"In the middle of the field, he ran around and hit some guys the other night," LePage said. "He knocked the ball loose from several receivers."
Haney will play the other safety position. Lentz and Bischoff both will be backups at safety.
Closser will get the start at cornerback, making him and Prenger two-way starters for Blair Oaks. But LePage anticipates seeing more Falcons playing both ways as well.
"Any of our guys can play both ways," he said. "They trained both sides of the ball. We feel like having the guys we have playing right now are the best at that position."
Purdy will start at the other cornerback position, with Marble and Garber serving as backups.
Last year against Maryville, LePage had several backup players in the game on defense at one time. With his team holding a second-half lead, it allowed the younger players to get experience in a critical, close contest, something the Falcons rarely experienced last season.
"It helps you for the next year, but we want to be able to be as fresh as we possibly can," LePage said.
THE FALCONS ARE in need of a new kicker and punter this season.
LePage said there is a battle between Closser and sophomore Zach Herigon for kicker. And yes, Blair Oaks will continue to kick extra points this season.
"Any time there's competition, people will rise to the top. Both of them, we feel very confident," LePage said.
Wekenborg will be the holder, and he's also battling Dudenhoeffer for the punter's job. Last season, Marcus Elder served as both the Falcons' kicker and punter.
Back on kickoff return will be Griep and Sam Luebbering.
"On kickoff return, just try tackling one of those two guys," LePage said. "They're so fast and they're so physical. We're going to put them back there and let them go."
Closser will be the lone man back on punt returns for the Falcons.
THE KICKOFF CLASSIC at William Jewell will be a matchup between two state-ranked opponents. Blair Oaks is No. 2 in Class 3 — trailing only defending state champion Trinity Catholic — and Maryville, which dropped to Class 2 this season, is ranked No. 3.
The recent series is tied at 1 each. Maryville won the 2017 matchup in the state semifinals 49-20, while Blair Oaks won last year's season opener 38-35, its only game decided by single digits.
Maryville runs a wing-T offense, but LePage expects to see everything the Spoofhounds have, schematically.
"Most of the time when you play a wing-T or a running team, you only play-action for a guy going deep," LePage said. "This is a team that can go shotgun on you, and they did in the Jamboree."
Maryville's senior captains are Jackson Bram, Tate Oglesby and Tyler Haer. Both Bram and Oglesby made first-team all-state in Class 3 last season.
Defensively, LePage said Maryville can be a tough matchup.
"We've got to match that intensity they bring," he said. "They do a really good job of tackling, they do a good job of disengaging on blocks and they ball-hawk. When they wrap you up, you're tackled."
The Spoofhounds are led by coach Matt Webb, who is 93-7 and has won three state titles with Maryville since taking over in 2012, winning a district title every season.
"The approach is we go up there, we go through all the pregame like we normally do, but the big deal is we're going to put our football helmets on and play them," LePage said.
The Falcons host Oak Grove next Friday in their home opener before starting Tri-County Conference play.
Blair Oaks is in Class 3 District 5 with Buffalo, Eldon, Logan-Rogersville, Salem, School of the Osage, Springfield Catholic and St. James.