When Bolivar High School football coach Glen Johnson looks over his team, he sees a chance to improve and the tools to make it happen.
The Liberators finished with a 4-6 record last year but return 15 starters from a team that still produced an average of 28 points per game while holding opponents to 24.
Johnson said the team’s record in its first outing as an independent scheduled program last year provides a way to gauge this year’s foes.
“More importantly,” he said, it gives the team “ motivation to improve.”
That opportunity for betterment starts in the hands of senior quarterback Hayden Burks, who will be under center for the Liberators for the third year.
Burks also has an inside linebacker role for the Liberators on defense, and Johnson said he sees him as the team’s heartbeat.
“He is our leader on both sides of the ball, and we will continue to rely on production from him his senior year,” Johnson said.
The senior earned all-district, all-conference and all-SWMFBCA honors last year.
Despite losing productive wide receivers Ian Jones and Brock Pitts and linebacker Seth Smith, this year’s Liberators return a plethora of talent, including senior running back Eathen Dinwiddie.
A team captain, Dinwiddie will play a large role in affecting games for the Liberators, Johnson said. He missed the first three games of his junior year but returned to rush for nearly 1,000 yards. He earned all-district, all-conference and all-SWMFBCA honors.
Offensive linemen Spencer Lipe, Jack Roweton and Drayton Huchteman also return for the team.
Lipe is the starting center and earned all-conference honors as a lineman last year. A team captain, the second-year starter has a spot on both sides of the ball, Johnson said.
As a sophomore, Roweton was a two-way starter on both the offensive and defensive lines. The junior earned all-conference honors last year.
Huchteman is also a two-way OL/DL starter with all-conference honors.
“His experience and physicality will be needed on both sides again his junior year,” Johnson said.
Senior tackle Garred Engle will be looked to as a leader, Johnson said, while Blade Hancock’s list of honors, including recognition all-district, all-conference, all-SWMFBCA and academic all-state mentions, set the senior apart. Hancock, a two-way starter, slots in as a wide receiver and also a defensive back.
Returning senior Cooper Hitchcock, Johnson said, will be “relied on heavily to produce on both sides of the ball.”
The wide receiver and defensive back is a smart football player and academic all-state honoree, Johnson said.
The Liberators’ returning leading tackler, Andrew Bunn, also plays a significant role on both sides of the ball as a running back and linebacker.
Also a running back and linebacker, Bo Banner, should be “dynamic” in his junior campaign, Johnson said.
Senior Payton Vahle and junior Dylan Hall return to the secondary. Both may also find a role on offense, Johnson said.
The team’s entire defensive line is back, including Blake Campbell, Huchteman, Roweton and James Miller, Johnson said.
Campbell returns as a junior after starting at defensive end last year.
“He will continue to give us stability on the defensive line,” Johnson said.
Starting as a freshman last year, Miller helped anchor the defensive line for the Liberators. He’s back again this year for more of the same, Johnson said.
Junior Parker Erickson returns at tight end and may also find a role on the defense, the coach said.
Juniors Mason Rogers and Zeke Partin played multiple positions last year, and Johnson said the team will look to both as starters this year.
Keegan Brockman returns and will likely find a role on the defensive line, Johnson said.
“We look forward to having experience back this season,” he said.
Newcomers to the team include senior Hunter Berry, sophonomes Elijah Roberts, Josh Bowes, Kaden Degraffenreid, EJ Ingram and Brant Meredith, juniors Jace Krueger, Darrin Fugitt and Jordan West.
The Liberators open their schedule with a jamboree against Mount Vernon at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, in Mount Vernon.
Johnson also identified Bolivar’s Friday, Sept. 13, matchup with Hannibal at home as a key game. Hannibal won 49-12 last year.
The Liberators make the trip to Cape Girardeau to face Cape Central Friday, Oct. 25, and Johnson said the team is also eyeing the contest as a key matchup. Bolivar won 41-21 last year when the game was played at home.
“Anytime you travel five hours and play a game, it presents challenges,” he said. “But, it will be a great atmosphere and a great game.”