By Chris Parker
Expectations are high for Pierce City with a wealth of talent returning from last year’s undefeated Southwest Conference championship team. Pierce City finished 10-1 on the season with a loss to Thayer in the district semifinals.
It was the third consecutive year Thayer ended Pierce City’s season in the district playoffs and fourth year in a row an South Central Association school beat Pierce City in district play.
“It is a different speed whenever these teams come in and (we) can’t wait until the second half to start playing. They have to be on their ‘A’ game from the moment the ball is kicked off,” Pierce City head Coach Brad Hocker said. “These kids know that. We played our worst game (against Thayer) last year. When things got bad it snowballed quickly. Champions are measured by how they deal with adversity. They are going to have to try and step up this year. We are going to have to find out if they want it bad enough.”
Offensively, 10 starters return led by First-Team All-Southwest Conference quarterback and Southwest Conference Offensive Player of the Year Colten O’Hara. The senior threw for 1,207 yards and 18 touchdowns last year as a junior. He added 567 yards and eight touchdowns on 110 carries on the ground.
“He is a film junkie, so you can add a lot of things and let him make some adjustments at the line,” Hocker said. “Colton did a great job last year of if we called a play and it wasn’t going to work, he would get us out of it and get us into the right play to be successful. Whenever you have someone smart like that you can add a lot of wrinkles to the offense.”
Trey Sagehorn, a first-team all-conference running back, returns to lead the backfield. He had 119 carries for 976 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Chanse Ford will also be a key piece running the ball after he tallied 469 yards and 12 touchdowns on 65 carries last season.
On the edge, Jackson Kleiboeker returns after being named first-team all-conference at wide receiver last year. He hauled in 24 receptions for 468 yards and five touchdowns. Trenton Kluck will line up at tight end where he caught 18 balls for 315 yards and four touchdowns on his way to a first-team all-conference selection.
The offensive line will be strong with Gabe George (center), Wyatt Perry (left guard), Tyson O’Hara (right guard), Matt Hall (right tackle) and Seth Fisher (left tackle) up front. Fisher was named first-team all-conference for his work on the offensive line last year.
Defensively, Kluck returns at linebacker after being named Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year thanks to his 104-tackle season that included 22 tackles for a loss. He is also instrumental in orchestrating Pierce City’s defense on the field.
“He is the type of kid that gets everybody lined up in the right place. Whenever he gets ahold of you, you are going down. He is a smart kid,” Hocker said.
Ford, Dominick Smith and Blake Chapman will join Kluck at linebacker.
Sagehorn, Kleiboeker and O’Hara will comprise an experienced secondary. Both Sagehorn and Kleiboeker were named first-team all-conference defensive backs after pulling down four interceptions apiece last year. O’Hara was a second-team selection at defensive back.
“They (the secondary) allow us to do some things up front because we know they can lock people down,” Hocker said. “These guys have been the mainstays on defense for us. They are smart and understand (the game). No offense takes them by surprise. They know how to adjust, lock down people on the outside and are sure tacklers.”
Fisher, Perry and George return to the defensive line after all three earned all-conference honors there last year. Hall and Tyson O’Hara will also be on the defensive line.
This is a year an experienced, senior-laden Pierce City has been building toward. The Eagles have posted back-to-back unbeaten conference championship seasons with a combined record of 21-2. They will again be the favorite in the Southwest Conference this year, but it is something the Eagles are used to.
“Since they were young they have had a target on their back. We aren’t immune to that. What we have to continue to do is take care of ourselves, work hard and be mentally and physically ready to play the game,” Hocker said. “These things are a process. These kids know and understand that.”
Make no mistake though, a district championship is the goal.
“I think that you can measure success a number of different ways, but one thing we have not accomplished with this group is that they have not had a district championship,” Hocker said. “(We) have had conference championships and been undefeated conference champions. Now what you have to do is take that next step and win a district title.”
Pierce City will open the season on Aug. 30 at Lockwood.