Coach: Caleb Smith, fifth season, 16-21
League: AV-CTL II
Last season: 9-2, lost in 5A quarterfinals
Returning starters: 7
Schedule: Sept. 1, Salina South; Sept. 8, at Campus; Sept. 15, Arkansas City; Sept. 22, at Newton; Sept. 29, Hays; Oct. 6, at Eisenhower; Oct. 13, at Goddard; Oct. 20, Andover.
Projected record: 3-5
Top returning players
Three keys to the season
1. A season-ending injury to the lone returning offensive lineman — two-time all-AVCTL Payton Stoffell — will make things a bit tougher on the offense. Smith is excited to see who steps up to fill those roles. There are options, but just how well – and how quickly – the replacements develop will go a long way in telling the story of the Hornets’ season.
2. Losses to graduation were big on the defensive side, but Cross, Boone and Gillen enter their third year as starters to help bolster the unit. Gillen was mentioned by his coach as a player who could have a breakout season, and his ability to cause disruption up front should help take some pressure off the younger players.
3. 2016 was a special year, as the Hornets not only posted their first winning season since 2001, but also won a pair of playoff games. Managing those new expectations and using the momentum built last year will be important as Valley Center is bound to have a few more close games this season.
Five questions with coach Caleb Smith
1. How valuable can last year’s playoff run be to this program?
“I think it’s just the understanding of what it takes to get to that level. The kids know what they need to do to give ourselves an opportunity to get back there. But we’ve got a lot of holes to fill and how good of a job we fill those roles is going to be a big part of how we do this year.”
2. How nice is it to have a quarterback like Wyatt Lange returning?
“Wyatt is a really good quarterback, but we’re going to have five new offensive line in front of him. It’s going to be nice to have someone with experience who knows what he’s doing back there and he knows what everybody else needs to be doing, as well. It definitely makes me feel a little bit better knowing we have him back there.”
3. How is the rest of the offense looking?
“We have a really nice receiver coming back in Dalton Cross, but that’s really it on the offensive side. We’ve got a lot to replace. Zach Williams is a guy we really like. He’s a basketball kid, but he’s a great athlete and is a 6- receiver who can do some things for us. Larry Russell is a running back that was real dominant for us on the JV level and having him at the varsity level is going to be a nice addition. We’ve got a lot of others we’re excited about, but they’re just so inexperienced right now.”
4. How’s the defense?
“We have some of our top guys back in Tyler Boone and Dalton Cross, but we lose a lot of other guys. Two of the biggest losses was our outside linebackers, who did a lot of different stuff for us. But we feel like we’re going to like how our defense shapes up. We’re not going to have the depth we used to, but we feel like we can pick up where left off from last season.”
5. What’s it going to take to repeat last year’s run through the playoffs?
“I think the first thing is we’re going to have to stay healthy. We don’t have very much depth right now. We have more guys playing both ways this year than we’ve had in the past. So staying healthy is going to be huge for us and just have some of those younger players, those sophomores and juniors who were playing on Monday nights last year find their way on the field and be productive. When you have to replace 15 starters, you’re going to have new guys get that opportunity and it’s going to come down to how they fill those roles that will decide how well our season goes.”