Last year at this time, Helias coach Chris Hentges was still attempting to put in his system with the Crusaders.
The Crusaders were working on installing the spread offense as well as shifting to a 4-3 front on on the defensive side, both big changes from recent seasons.
"I don't want to say we were trying to play catch-up, but it seemed like we were always trying to install, install, install," Hentges said.
Things are going a lot smoother heading into Year 2.
"I feel like we're better on both sides of the ball than we were at this time last year," Hentges said. "We have a lot more in on offensive and defensive sides of the ball."
One of the big things is Hentges and his staff are more familiar with the players.
"You keep building to the strengths of your personnel," he said. "We always want to play to the strengths of each team, whether it be offense or defense. We know who our guys are better than we did at this time last year, we're a lot more comfortable.
"It's not just teaching plays, but it's teaching techniques that make you successful is what we have continued to work on."With one season under their belts and an offseason of work, the Crusaders are looking for that experience to pay dividends in the win column this season.
"We've got a lot more in the toolbox," Hentges said.
ON THE OFFENSIVE side, the Crusaders scored 28 or more points in eight of their 11 games last season.
Jacob Weaver, a junior, returns as the starting quarterback after throwing for 1,900 yards and running for an additional 800 yards.
"Jake had a very good year as a sophomore," Hentges said. "It was a successful first year and coming back with that added experience, he is really going to be the one to make our offense go in both the run and the pass games."
Hentges said Weaver still has room to improve on his numbers, especially in the passing game.
"He throws a very good deep ball, but we're still working on his intermediate throws, get them out a little quicker and put them in the right spots," Hentges said. "He's still a young player and all young players have things they need to work on.
"But he's getting better each day."
Zach Wolken, also a junior, returns as Weaver's backup.
"Zach's a good quarterback, he can do some things Jake can't do," Hentges said. "His understanding of the offense has grown and it's a luxury to have him around."
Hentges likes to have two running backs ready to go and he has that in junior Alex Clement and senior Brody Mays.
"Alex is a little smaller than Brody, but he's explosive while Brody is more of a power runner," Hentges said. "Both have traits that will help the offense.
"We will play two backs, we always have had a two-back rotation."
The Crusaders will be relying on Clement and Mays to pick up additional yards on their own.
"Our running backs have to be their own blocker, we can get them through the first level, but at the second level, they're going to have to be able to break a tackle," Hentges said.
And in the Crusaders' passing game, both have to be ready to ward off the rush of the defense.
"They are going to have to be capable pass protectors and both of them can do that," Hentges said.
The Crusaders are deep at the tight end and fullback spots.
Damon Johanns, a junior, will get the start at tight end, while senior Jake Warren will start at the fullback spot.
Among the reserves are juniors Ethan Holzhauser and Isaac Lopez, along with sophomore Cole Stumpe.
"All of them can run very well, they all catch the ball very well and are good blockers on the edge," Hentges said. "They all do what we need them to do at those positions. They are all very good athletes."
Griffin Buschjost, a senior, will start at one of the outside receiver positions. Dylan Weaver and Caleb Justice, both seniors, will split time at the other spot.
Among the reserves are junior Drew Higgins and sophomore Kaden Hampson.
"We like to spread it around in the passing game and those two positions are big parts of our offense," Hentges said.
The biggest question mark heading into the season for the Crusaders is the offensive line. Helias started five seniors for most of last season.
Dylan Kopp is the lone returner with much experience. The junior, who will start at right tackle, played about 40 percent of the snaps last season due to injuries.
Will Heckman, a JV player last season, will start at right tackle as a junior. Noah Morrow, a senior who missed last season due to injuries, will start at center. Gage Trachsel, a junior, will start at left guard, while junior Parker Wideman will start at left tackle after missing half of last season with an injury.
"It's a talented group that will develop each week, it's just a matter of gaining experience on the varsity level," Hentges said. "We know they are going to get better.
"The future looks good, we're going to have a talented group, it's just a matter of developing them as the season goes along."
Among the reserves are Jason Hazelhorst, Garrett Hentges, Tate Heislen, Drew Dister and Jacob Watson. Hazelhorst, Hentges and Heislen are seniors. Watson is a junior, while Distler is a sophomore.
As always, the Crusaders look to use a balance between the pass and run games.
"We want to be as multiple as we can," Chris Hentges said. "We have the tools to be balanced between the run and pass game, but as always, it comes down to taking what the defense is giving you."
WHILE THE OFFENSE had some success last season, the defense struggled as the Crusaders gave up 41 or more points six times to opponents.
In an attempt to improve on that side of the ball, former Helias defensive coordinator and head coach Phil Pitts has returned to the staff to again lead the defense.
The Crusaders will stay in the 4-3 front they used last season.
"Last year, we installed coach Pitts' defense, that was the defense I was most comfortable with us running," Hentges said. "Things have really stayed the same, the only thing that changed is the coordinator."
Just like the offense, the defense has a year of experience and another offseason of work.
"Our rate of installation was really quick this year because we built a great base for it last year," Hentges said. "We hit the ground running this year, we really had the defensive playbook installed before camp was over. Now it's a matter of improving on what we do and we do what is necessary to stop our opponents."
Hentges said it's not the style of defense a team plays that makes it successful, it's the players in that defense.
"We can't scheme guys to be unblocked," Hentges said. "You have to take on the blocks, you have to beat the blocks and you have to make the tackle. That's what we're working on, we have to beat blocks and get to the ball.
"If you're relying on a coach to scheme up a blitz to get you free all the time to make an unblocked tackle, good luck, because you can only dial something like that up maybe five times in a game.
"You just have to man-up, shed the block and make a tackle."
With a lot of players on the defensive line also starting on offense, the Crusaders will employ a rotation up front to keep them as fresh as possible.
Justice, Johanns, Watson and junior Quinton Baker will share time at the defensive end spots. Kopp, Wideman, Distler and junior Will Heckman will play the tackle positions.
Garrett Schnieders, who missed a couple of games in a very productive junior season due to injury, returns to start at Mike linebacker.
"Garrett had a very good season and we're looking to build off that," Hentges said.
Thomas Bruemmer, also a senior, will start at Sam linebacker, while Lopez will start at Will linebacker.
"(Lopez) is always in the right place, he uses good technique and he tackles well," Hentges said.
Among the backups at linebacker are Stumpe, Mays and Holzhauser.
The secondary was often a sore spot for the Crusaders last season.
"You can't throw a kid into the defensive secondary if they're not ready," Hentges said. "If they're not ready, they're giving up a touchdown pass. You can't force the issue, either they are ready or they're not and we're making sure the back end of our defense is solid."
Warren and Dylan Weaver will start in the safety spots. Weaver is moving from cornerback.
"He's done a good job with the move, it's good to have him back there," Hentges said. "Warren is a really good athlete, he can run."
Buschjost and Clement will start at cornerback.
Among the reserves in the secondary are senior Nathan Kolb, junior Aleck Barchenski and Hampson.
The Crusaders are looking for the secondary to do a better job against the run game this season.
"If it's a 5-yard run, make the tackle and we're line up for the next down," Hentges said. "What we can't afford is to let a 5-yard run turn into a 50-yard run, and that happened far too often last year.
"We have to limit those big plays, that's the biggest improvement we can make on defense and we will be better at that."
THE HELIAS SPECIAL teams will have a bit of a different look as senior Vito Calvaruso adds punting duties to his place-kicking responsibilities.
"Vito has been a weapon for us for the past few years and he'll be one again," Hentges said. "A lot of high school coaches would love to have Vito on his team."
Calvaruso has the ability to put points on the board from long range.
"If we're inside the 50, we have to think about Vito kicking it, he's kicked 55-60 yarders in practice," Hentges said. "We're going to call on him to do a lot on our special teams this year."
Hentges said Calvaruso has the ability to be a top-notch punter.
"He's really developing," Hentges said.
Holzhauser returns as the deep snapper on kicks and punts, while Dylan Weaver is back as the holder.
"There's a lot of familiarity in that part of the game for us," Hentges said.
The Crusaders will use a variety of players in the return game.
"We've got some younger guys who are going to get a chance," Hentges said. "You have to have guts to return kicks and we've got some kids that are very capable of doing that."
THE REGULAR-SEASON SCHEDULE is home-heavy at the start, with three of the first four games at Ray Hentges Stadium.
"We're going to be on the road a lot late in the season, but we're not worried about that," Chris Hentges said. "We're going to take it week-by-week."
Helias opens the season tonight at home against Hannibal.
"Hannibal is going to be tough, they are unbelievably athletic," Hentges said.
Helias has been assigned to Class 4 District 5. Many of the teams are the same as Helias was paired with last season, with the biggest change being Lebanon dropping from Class 5.
"It's not coach-speak when I say this, I just care about getting better each week and I'll worry about districts when we get there," Hentges said. "We want to take care of the regular season to get in a better position in the bracket and have the potential for a home game or two in the district."
Helias won its district opener at Union last season before falling on the road to Camdenton in the semifinals.