The past two seasons, the Blue Springs football team was one win away from winning their sixth state championship in school history.
In 2016, the Wildcats fell to Kirkwood 31-14 in the Class 6 Show-Me Bowl state championship, and then to Christian Brothers College by that same score in 2017. When all-state linebacker Austin Stuller looks back at those results, he thinks about how his team has some unfinished business.
“Oh yeah! One-hundred percent,” Stuller said when asked if this year’s team can make it back to the state championship game for a third straight season as the Wildcats opened 2018 workouts Monday, the first day of high school sports practice in Missouri. “We’re going to try our best to finish it this time.”
Blue Springs will aim to win its first state championship since 2013 this season following a year in which it graduated a bevy of seniors from last year’s team. That includes several key players who signed with college programs such as defensive end Daniel Parker Jr. (Missouri), cornerback Xavier Hall (Emporia State), linebacker Nick Hessefort (Missouri State), defensive tackle Khristian Boyd (Northern Iowa), kicker Sam Knowlton (Central Missouri), defensive back Azaiah Bello (Central Missouri) and wide receiver Tre’ Wheaton (Northwest Missouri State).
The 2018 version of the Wildcats will still feature a good amount of experienced seniors. They held their first practice of the season Monday and an upbeat head coach Kelly Donohoe was ecstatic with what he’s seen so far.
“I think we had a fantastic first day,” Donohoe said. “It felt like we came right out of the summer and didn’t skip a beat. Every year, I feel like we have pretty good first days, but I can’t remember feeling this good about a first day in terms of execution, attitude, effort. This is going to be a really great group of kids.
“We have a bunch of tough kids that we’re confident in. We have the potential to be a really good football team. We don’t expect to take a step back at all. We’re disappointed with how (last) season finished.”
The team returns seven starters on offense from last year’s team, including four offensive linemen, headlined by all-stater Conrad Rowley. Also coming back is tight end Eli Stewart, wide receiver Matt Marzolf, running back Nick Wood and All-Suburban Big Seven running back Aveion Bailey. Those offensive pieces will help ease the transition for quarterback Koby Mansfield, who will start for the varsity team for the first time, replacing two-year starter Chase Donohoe.
“The offensive line has looked phenomenal,” Mansfield said. “And the one new lineman has been doing great.
“For any opposing defense, it’s a scary threat to try to stop our two monsters back there. You have one guy running a 4.4 (40-meter dash) off the edge (Wood) and a bull right up the middle who’s explosive (Bailey).”
Kelly Donohoe said he believes that Mansfield will surprise some people as a first-year signal caller.
“Koby is going to be good,” Donohoe said. “He’s a smart kid, he’s a tough kid and brings a great element of a runner and a thrower. I have tremendous confidence that he will be just fine.”
Perhaps the most difficult task for the Wildcats is replicating the success last year’s defense had, which held opponents to a meager 14.4 points per game. The Wildcats have just three players back, including Stuller, defensive lineman Nikko Manning and defensive back Matt Van Hoecke. There will be a lot of new faces on that side of the ball, but so far, they are looking good, Stuller said.
“We’re really deep and I have a lot of confidence in my guys,” Stuller said. “We have a lot of underclassmen coming in and they are going to fill in just fine.”
Even with quite a bit of new players entering the fray, the confidence of this storied program hasn’t changed a bit.
“We will have a few rough games to get back there, but I think if we get everything clicking like we should, we should see CBC again and finish it the right way this time,” Mansfield said of potentially playing in the state championship game. “I have a lot of confidence in this team.”