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KIRKWOOD — In his first taste of varsity football, William Lee's eyes played tricks on him.

It looked like the opposing team slapped helmets and pads on five minotaurs and sent them out to protect the quarterback.

“When I walked up to the line, their offensive line was so big. I wasn't expecting that,” Lee said with a smile. “When you're looking at them across the field, they look the same size as you. When you're close to them, they're like giants.”

Now a two-way starting junior for the Kirkwood football team, Lee has adjusted to the speed, size and stamina that come standard if you want to play at a high level. As a team, the Pioneers want to step up their level from last year. 

Kirkwood went 8-4 last season and lost in a Class 6 district championship 49-14 at Joplin. The four losses were the most for the Pioneers since they went 8-4 in 2010. Three times in that stretch Kirkwood lost just once, including when it won the Class 6 state title in 2016.

Expectations are always high when you play for the red and white. With about seven returning regulars on either side of the ball, Kirkwood is the No. 7 large school in the STLhighschoolsports.com preseason rankings.

The Pioneers have a strong base of experience to build around. The offensive line brings back three senior starters in Alex DeJong (6-foot-4, 270 pounds), Quinton Costello (6-2, 235) and Matt Hartman (6-2, 270).

Senior receiver Jay Maclin (5-11, 180) has verbally committed to Missouri after catching 45 passes for 762 yards and nine touchdowns. He's the top threat for a group of receivers that saw spot time. Junior Jackson Fortner (6-2, 160) and Lee (6-3, 185) caught four passes between them last fall.

Junior running back Kane Drummond (5-9, 150) had 22 carries for 70 yards as a sophomore. He's going to get first crack as the primary back with the graduation of Martez Jones II, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Junior quarterback Kannon Nesslage (6-5, 185) attempted 18 passes as a sophomore but did throw a pair of touchdowns. Maclin said he trusts his signal caller to step in and get the job done. Nesslage spent the offseason drilling with his receivers to build the chemistry that can be so critical on Friday nights.

“Every day after weights we were on the field. He believes in us and that's all we need him to do,” Maclin said. “He's young but I have faith in him. He's ready to show what he can do.”

Kirkwood's defense brings back its leading tackler in senior linebacker Cameron Macon (6-0, 185). Macon racked up 69 tackles and six sacks plus another 12 tackles for loss. This will be Macon's last hurrah on the football field. He plans to play baseball at the college level and is trying to make his senior season last as long as possible.

“I've been playing football since first grade. It's always been a part of my life,” Macon said. “I'm planning on going hard this season and not having any regrets.”

He and Lee are the heart of the returning defense. Lee, also a linebacker, finished last season with 65 tackles and four sacks. This will be his first season playing starters minutes on offense and defense. He's worked to prepare his body and mind for the grind.

“I have to stay healthy and stay in shape. There's no breaks for real,” Lee said. “We don't have that many two-way starters on this team. I have to be a leader on both sides of the ball.”

Part of leadership is being honest when assessing strengths and weaknesses. Lee and Macon were left unsatisfied with Kirkwood's defensive performance as a whole last season. They spent the offseason doing their part to make it better.

“We know our defense at times last year was not very good,” Macon said. “We're putting a lot of emphasis on that and trying to be leaders and helping young guys step into their roles and make our defense as best as it can be.”

Among those new guys are junior linebackers Ryland Irvin (6-0, 175) and Jack Matousek (6-0, 185), who had five total tackles between them.

Maclin returns to the defensive secondary as a safety after playing cornerback last season.

Kirkwood has high expectations as always but Lee and Macon said they want to help cultivate a “we not me” attitude. Should they be successful, Kirkwood figures to be in the hunt when the weather turns cold.

“Every week we want to focus on being a team. We want to keep improving on playing together,” Macon said. “If we continue to learn how to do that deep into the season I think we're going to be a hard team to beat.”

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