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KIRKWOOD • Optimism flows freely in the preseason. A new year, a fresh start, the possibilities are endless.

The Kirkwood football team's cup overflows with optimism for a good reason — last year's crushing finish.

The 2016 Class 6 state champion, Kirkwood was knocked out in last season's Class 6 District 1 semifinals by rival Lindbergh on a field goal in the waning moments of regulation. The returning seniors have experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows.

They want to be back on top again.

“They learned. We understood we didn't lose to Lindbergh on that night, we lost to Lindbergh through the process of things we didn't do,” Kirkwood coach Farrell Shelton said. “That's what we're talking about now. We can't win a state championship on the third day of practice, but we can lose a state championship on the third day of practice.”

By every measure the Pioneers had another excellent season. They finished 9-2 and ran their streak of Turkey Day Game victories over arch nemesis Webster Groves to five. But it sure didn't feel all that great when the pads and helmets were put away for the winter.

“The offseason has been so long,” senior defensive end Arvell Ferguson Jr. said. “I've been waiting to get back to work with my boys, get on this field and grind.”

If all goes as expected, the Pioneers will grind up the competition once again. Kirkwood is No. 4 in the STLhighschoolsports.com preseason large-school rankings.

Shelton estimated the varsity returned half of its regulars from last season. Among the highlights include senior quarterback Cooper Wise (6-foot-2, 175 pounds). Wise split time under center last season with then-senior Ryan Kraichely, but now the job is solely his for the foreseeable future.

“I put in a lot of work, so it's a lot of pressure off my shoulders knowing I've got the job right now and I can focus on winning games,” Wise said.

Wise did his best work on the ground as he rushed for 263 yards and seven touchdowns. He completed 35 of his 54 passes for 547 yards, four touchdowns and was intercepted four times. A standout track athlete, Wise has the physical tools to be game changer. He spent the offseason working on his passing skills.

“The biggest thing is his IQ. We do focus on his weakness to a higher level closer to his strengths,” Shelton said. “I think the biggest thing with Cooper is staying within himself and controlling the game. I tell him incompletions we can live with. Interceptions and turnovers will kill us.”

Wise has some serious talent at his disposal. Senior receiver Maurice Massey (6-4, 185) transferred to Kirkwood after three years at Francis Howell North, where he displayed elite speed and skills. He verbally committed to Missouri the first week of August.

Junior receiver Jairus Maclin (5-11, 190) also was offered a scholarship by Mizzou. He caught 27 passes for 509 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore.

Wise is excited to see what the Pioneers offense can do.

“I can trust them to go make plays,” he said. “Last year we had weapons but this year it's totally different.”

The offensive line features senior center Tyler Peck (5-11, 210), who's been a varsity mainstay since he was a sophomore.

Senior Martez Jones II (5-9, 205) rushed for 304 yards and four touchdowns on 73 carries, the most of any returning player.

The defense will rely on Ferguson (6-5, 220) to be a big-time presence in his third-year of varsity action. He had 51 tackles and four sacks last season.

Senior Stefan Cameron (5-10, 185) had 48 tackles, three sacks and three interceptions in the defensive backfield last season. Wise, Jones and Maclin expect to be key pieces of the secondary this season.

Shelton couldn't say enough about Wise's leadership entering this season. He is one of the many seniors who will have to bridge the leadership gap to the underclassmen.

“Your state champions, it's when these guys are doing the leading,” Shelton said. “The seniors know how to step up and that's the difference.”

Wise believes these Pioneers have what it takes to make another run at a championship ring.

“I feel like this year we have a lot better chemistry,” Wise said. “I think it'll be similar to sophomore year.”

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