By Chris Parker
Few teams in the area were hit harder by graduation than the Strafford Indians last season with a group of players that combined for 21 total all-conference honors graduating.
Second-team all-state wide receiver and defensive back Dillon Hester (Evangel), first-team all-conference quarterback and linebacker Wyatt Maples (Harding) and first-team all-conference offensive lineman and second-team all-conference linebacker Derrick Holley (Evangel) are all playing college football this year. Trayson Lawler (TE/LB) and Ryan Lofton (OL/DE) were two other big losses for Strafford according to head coach Tim Hester.
“That (group) is going to be very hard to replace. It is going to be a challenge. These guys have some big shoes to fill,” Hester said.
While Maples and his 2,526 yards passing and 38 touchdowns are gone, leading rusher Ian Bareis does return for his senior season. Bareis, who suffered an ACL injury as a junior, had 94 carries for 781 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games last year. Fellow senior Jared Kinder will see some carries as well while Bareis works back into game shape.
The quarterback position will come down to seniors Jacob Stow and Mason Foley. Stow was the team’s back-up and JV quarterback last season. Foley was a first-team all-conference wide receiver.
Whoever wins the quarterback job will have a host of new receivers to throw to. Clay Lawson, Vance Mullins, Cade Rear, Scout Askren, Kyle Schatzer and Mason Denning are all battling for reps at receiver. Mullins led that group last year as a sophomore with 13 catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns. Denning is a sophomore transfer from Glendale.
The offensive line will be completely new, but will have a good teacher in former University of Oklahoma All-Big 12 selection Tyler Evans who has returned to coach linemen at Strafford.
The new offensive line started at the junior varsity level together last year and includes: Chris Cook, Tyler Gravlin, Hunter Blankenship, Jaydyn Stafford, Anthony Perry and Chance Edens.
“This is a unit that they all have the same level of skills and abilities. It isn’t like one side is stronger than the other. It is straight across pretty good,” Hester said. “I could see over time, maybe game five or game six, really seeing some improvement.”
The heart of the best scoring defense in the Mid-Lakes was gutted by graduation. The Indians allowed just 90 total points last year, but must replace one of the best groups of linebackers that Hester has had in his time at Strafford.
“Last year was across the board our best three linebackers we had in a long time. Usually we will have one good linebacker and the others are being covered up by that one linebacker. Last year was a luxury,” Hester said.
Kinder, Bareis, Dakota Isabel and Jaevon Stafford are all in line to get reps at linebacker. Up front, Cook, Gravlin, Blankenship, Stafford and Perry will pull double-duty comprising the defensive line in addition to their duties on the offensive line.
The strength of the Strafford defense will be the secondary according to Hester. Lawson, Foley and Mullins all return to that unit. Foley and Lawson both earned second-team all-conference honors in the secondary while Mullins was honorable mention all-conference. Denning, Schatzer and Rear are all candidates to see time in the secondary as well.
Hester doesn’t often play freshmen on varsity, but Dakota Ames and Brandon Eagleburger are both capable of working their way in the varsity lineup. Ames was referred to as a top three athlete on the team by Hester, while Eagleburger could see time on both lines.
Strafford will again use a host of two-way players. It is a grind they have long been preparing for.
“Every year we run these boys all summer pretty hard. We are running six to eight miles per week during the summer. In the weight room there is no standing still. It is all moving around,” Hester said.
The team Strafford puts on the field in Week 9 should be vastly improved from the one that opens up on Aug. 30.
“If they get better each week (and) by game nine they are at the top of their game I would say that is successful year,” Hester said.
Strafford opens the season on Aug. 30 at Willow Springs.