In any other season, Helias football entering a conference would be the big story.
It's been more than two decades since the Crusaders played a conference schedule and the Central Missouri Activities Conference — which will feature a pair of interesting in-town games — will start this fall.
But this isn't any other season.
"We're in game week, it's here and we're going to play," Helias coach Chris Hentges said. "In the back of our minds a lot during the summer, we were wondering if this was going to happen.
"We're cautiously optimistic now that we're going to have a football season."
That optimism was tested earlier this week when Hannibal pushed back the start of school two weeks due to COVID-19 concerns and called off all athletic activities, incuding tonight's scheduled game against Helias.
But the next day Helias scheduled Lutheran: St. Charles for tonight's opener, with the game being played at Ray Hentges Stadium.
It was the third schedule change already this season for the Crusaders, who replaced Granite City, Ill., with Borgia in Week 4 and are looking for a Week 9 opponent after Vianney canceled its matchup with Helias.
There could be more to come.
"It's week by week," Hentges said. "That's the only way we can look at this season."
HELIAS RETURNS SEVEN starters from an offense that averaged nearly 40 points in its nine victories last season.
Four of those starters are on the offensive line.
"The offensive line had really gelled in the fall camp," Hentges said. "Their ability to communicate, problem-solve has been great.
"A lot of time on the line it's just a matter of adjusting to the shifting fronts of the defensive line and making the proper calls to adjust. We've seen them move forward with that."
The offense starts with what happens at the line of scrimmage.
"What you do up front will decide how good your offense will be," Hentges said.
Dylan Kopp enters his third year of varsity play on the line, as the senior will start at right tackle.
"He brings a lot of experience, he's athletic and plays with a high motor," Hentges said.
Parker Wideman will get the starting nod at left tackle, while Gage Traschel will start at left guard. Both are seniors.
For the first game, senior Will Heckman will move to center as projected starter Nicholas Heislen, a junior, won't have enough required practices. The right guard spot will be held down by a combination of senior Jacob Watson and junior Drew Distler.
Among the reserves are senior Hayden Payne and Trevor Kolb, who is one of a strong group of sophomores.
"We have a lot of talented linemen that are about a year away, we've got good numbers in the sophomore class," Hentges said. "They are going to have to play huge roles for us next year."
Jake Weaver returns for his third season as a starter at quarterback. The senior threw for more than 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns while running for six more scores before injuring his shoulder in practice late in the regular season.
"He's an athlete who is very dangerous when he has the ball in his hands," Hentges said.
Hentges said Weaver is battling a little arm soreness from the injury.
"That was expected, but everything is structurally sound and he's getting stronger and stronger each day," Hentges said.
Zach Wolken performed capably in place of Weaver at the end of the season and returns as his backup.
"If we need to bring Zach in for certain situations, we certainly feel very comfortable doing that," Hentges said.
Alex Clement, a senior, returns at running back after leading the Crusaders in rushing with 503 yards while battling injuries last season.
Ryan Klahr, a junior, also figures to see extended time in the backfield.
"We have a 1 and 1A," Hentges said. "They are not the biggest backs in the world, but they are both shifty and very dangerous when they have the ball in their hands."
There are subtle differences in their abilities.
"Alex has a little more size, so he can finish runs a little better," Hentges said. "Ryan is a more open-field runner who is hard to tackle, he can make a lateral cut where you think you have him and you're grabbing at air."
In the receiving corps, four players will rotate through the two inside starting spots.
Damon Johanns and Ethan Holzhauser will play the Y position, while Cole Stumpe and Isaac Lopez will split time at the F spot.
"They are all key defensive starters, so they will get their rest and rotation on offense," Hentges said. "We're confident in all four of them on the offensive side."
The Crusaders enter the season with questions at the outside receiver positions due to inexperience.
Drew Higgins will start at the X receiver, with Kaden Hampson as his backup. At Z receiver, Aleck Barchenski will start, with Quinton Baker and Sam Hentges in the mix as Harrison Miller recovers from an injury,
"We have a lot of depth, but it's all inexperienced," Hentges said. "We're pleased with their development, the season will see who will step up."
Zach Rockers, Helias' quarterbacks coach, will take over for Hentges as offensive coordinator.
"It's allowed me to see more broadly what we're doing offensively," Hentges, who still be connected with the offense during games, said. "Zach is a great teacher, he's very organized, the practices are great.
"He will call a great game on Friday nights."
THERE ARE SEVEN starters returning on defense as well, led by linebackers Lopez and Holzhauser.
"They are so valuable, they will never leave the field defensively," Hentges said. "As long as they're breathing, they're going to be playing defense."
Lopez finished with 118 total tackles last season, while Holshauser racked up 115.
"That's a lot of defensive production," Hentges said. "Plus they do a great job of getting everybody lined up where they need to be."
Also in the mix at linebacker are Gage Wilde, Korbin Fischer and Tyler Sandbothe. Miller will also see time when he returns.
The offensive linemen will get their breaks on defense as Kopp, Heckman, Wideman and Traschel will share time, along with Jack Klebba.
Watson and Johanns will be joined by Baker as defensive ends. Sam Schell, a junior, was injured in practice last week and should return in a few weeks.
"There's a lot of experience on the line and we're expecting big things from that group," Hentges said.
Clement, Klahr, Higgins and Hampson will share time at cornerback.
Barchenski and Stumpe, who played linebacker last season, will start at safety. Carson Brauner and Sam Hentges are the reserves.
THE HELIAS SPECIAL teams have been extra special the last few seasons with Vito Calvaruso, who is now playing at Arkansas.
"We have kids working hard, but anytime you lose an All-American, you know you can't replace him," Hentges said.
Injuries have plagued the preseason kicking competition. Tonight, Lopez figures to kick the extra points, with Weaver ready if necessary.
Vinnie Calvaruso has missed practice time with a hip inury, while Philip Knox does not have the required practices.
"It's unsettled, we don't have a guy we can say right now that the job is the theirs until somebody steps up and claims it," Hentges said.
Holzhauser returns at long snapper, with Wolken taking over as holder. Cale Sappenfield will start the season at punter.
WITH THE HANNIBAL game off the schedule, the only trip out of town currently on Helias' schedule is Sept. 4 at Hickman.
"Right now, we don't leave the city limits after Week 2," Hentges said. "This team could have two months in town."
The Hickman game will be the first of six CMAC contests this season.
"We hope to get in all of our conference games," Hentges said. "We can get a conference champion, name all-conference teams. Those things will be big for the boys."
One of those conference games will be the first-ever meeting with Jefferson City, scheduled for Oct. 9 at Adkins Stadium.
"All of our games are big and important," Hentges said. "But let's not kid ourselves, this will be a special game for the community, 60-plus years in the making. It will be a lot of fun."
The Crusaders are going to enjoy that two-thirds of their schedule is locked in by conference games.
"We're not having to go to all corners of the state to find games, after all these years as an independent, it's going to be nice," Hentges said.
Now it's just a question of how many games the Crusaders will be able to play this season.
"The coaches and the players have put in a lot of hard work, we're ready to get this thing going," Hentges said.