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FLORISSANT • The Hazelwood Central football players were on their own.

When Brent Chojnacki resigned as Central's coach to take over the same job at Francis Howell in April, the returning Hawks knew it would take some time for a new coach to be hired.

Time they didn't have to sit around and wait.

“It was mainly us seniors trying to get together and get these guys in the weight room,” Central senior Keon Cross said. “We knew we were going to get a new coach. We just wanted to make sure we were right and ready for the season.”

The seniors quickly found herding the rest of their team to voluntary offseason workouts was tough. They decided to divide and conquer.

“We had to rely on juniors and sophomores. We told them, 'Make sure you get all your guys to come,' ” Cross said. “We wanted everybody to be here. We knew it was going to take a family type thing. (The seniors) couldn't just do it ourselves.”

When Carey Davis was named Central's new coach May 16, he inherited a senior class that is desperate to win and willing to work to make it happen. He also inherited a roster that graduated 36 seniors and returns only a few starters on either side of the ball.

Central is the No. 8 large school in the STLhighschoolsports.com preseason rankings.

“As soon as Coach Davis got here we were trying to buy in to what he was selling and the system he was trying to incorporate,” senior receiver and linebacker Darius Watson said. “We bought in really well. Since this is our last year we want to go out with a bang.”

A perennial championship contender, Central has had its last three seasons end at the hands of CBC in the district championship game. The Hawks are a combined 30-6 in the three previous seasons and three of those defeats came when they were freshmen.

Knowing their regular-season success has not satisfied them, they are finding their limits and surpassing them at every opportunity in the offseason and at preseason practice.

“What we're trying to push is when we get to that point (in districts) we can't let up,” Watson said. “We can't let up at practice, no off days, no nothing. We have to keep going every single snap, every single practice. We have to keep grinding. We know what our expectations are.”

The expectations are always high at Central. That is nothing new for Davis, who graduated from Central in 1999. What is new at Central?

Everything else.

Davis has completely revamped the offensive and defensive schemes. He brought in a different coaching staff. The roster has turned over significantly.

This transition differs from last season when Chojnacki was promoted from within the coaching staff to replace Van Vannatta, who was hired at Rock Bridge in Columbia after the 2016 season. 

“The first coaching change wasn't really that different. We ran the same offense, the same defense,” Cross said. “With Davis it's different. It's turned up.”

The players said the coaching staff has brought a different energy to practice. The coaches challenge the players to match their enthusiasm.

“They want us to bring the energy along with them. Everybody is juiced up all the time,” Watson said. “They came in with a plan and it was set. We've been rolling ever since.”

The relationship between the players and Davis is unique for Central. Davis is the first African-American head coach in the program's illustrious history. The players are predominantly African-American. Davis' life experience mirrors many of the players and that resonates with them. 

“It's a different connection,” senior wide receiver Jordan Tate said.

Cross, Davis and Watson said while the connection is different, Davis suffers no fools. There has been a more disciplined approach at practice.

“Last year we got away with a lot more stuff,” Cross said. “He gets on us a lot more. A whole lot more.”

Sometimes too much?

“I need it a whole lot, but he could dial it back a bit,” Tate said with a smile.

The Hawks will have to be disciplined and on point if they hope to accomplish their goal of winning a district championship and chasing a state title. They brought back Cross, who had a team-high 108 tackles at linebacker last season. This year he's moved to safety.

Just about everyone else is getting their first extended look at varsity time. Only time will tell if these Hawks have what it takes to get over the hump.

“We've been putting in a lot of work. The guys have been getting after it,” Davis said. “Our expectations are to work hard and the fun will come when you're winning games.”

2018 area football schedules

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