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EUREKA — Zach Valentine began his career at Eureka as the rarest of talents.

He was a starter on the football team as a freshman.

A wide receiver and defensive back, Valentine wrapped his first year of high school football with visions of bigger and better things in his future. His sophomore season began with a bang. In three games, he only caught five passes but he turned them into 231 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged just more than 46 yards per catch.

Halfway through his fifth game that season, it all fell apart. Valentine suffered a debilitating knee injury, one that robbed him of the rest of sophomore year. As he rehabilitated, a second knee surgery was required, this one on his other knee. Valentine pushed through the punishment as he worked in physical therapy to break up the scar tissue.

“It was all pain,” he said.

Valentine didn't complete his rehabilitation from both surgeries until right before his junior year began. He was given the green light to resume football activities but that's not the same as being ready for the rigors of Class 6 football.

“Being cleared and getting back to your athleticism are two different processes,” Valentine said. “I was cleared right before the season but I had to get back to myself, get in varsity shape and get all my athleticism.”

Valentine could have hung up his helmet, took his repaired knees and never looked back. 

Even if he wanted to, he couldn't. Football has been his life since he started in the Eureka youth program in fourth grade. He couldn't sever the bond he's created with his classmates, most of whom he's played with since that first year in the feeder program. It means too much to him.

“Football is my love. If anyone asks what I am, I'm a football player,” Valentine said. “About 75 percent of us have been together the whole time. It's awesome going through the system with everybody.”

It's why the Wildcats have consistently been among the top teams in the area. It's one reason why Eureka is the No. 8 large school in the STLhighschoolsports.com preseason rankings.

Eureka finished last season 9-2 as it was upended for the first time in school history by Marquette, 13-12. It was beaten by rival Kirkwood in the district semifinals. For the third time in four years, the Wildcats had their season end at the hands of the Pioneers.

This fall, Eureka has a handful of returning starters aiming for an extended postseason run. The offense brings back four regulars including offensive lineman Josh Baker (6-foot-3, 285 pounds), who has verbally committed to Arizona.

Junior quarterback Carter Davis (6-2, 162) completed 127 of his 200 passes for 1,954 yards, 23 touchdowns and was intercepted four times. He'll have senior running back Jhalon Asher-Sanders (5-8, 165) with him in the backfield. Asher-Sanders proved to be a dual threat as he rushed for a team high 836 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught 18 passes for 269 yards and two more touchdowns to give him the most of any returning player. Senior receiver Dax DuBrock (6-0, 170) had 16 receptions for 207 yards and three touchdowns last season.

Valentine (5-11, 195) will factor into the passing game too. He made it back on the field for one game last season, catching one pass for nine yards against Seckman in the regular season finale.

The defense is going to lean on senior linebacker Jake McCollum (6-1, 195), who led the team with 118 tackles last season and kicked in four sacks. Asher-Sanders will see his role expand on the defensive end, too.

The Wildcats graduated a strong group of seniors but a program is not built upon one class. Eureka has remained among the best in the area because it has new players step up every year. The Wildcats expect that tradition to hold this fall.

“We see all the guys before us leading the team and we're in that position,” McCollum said. “We're excited to take the team where we want to go.”

Whether or not Eureka reaches its ultimate goal of claiming its first state championship with its first title game appearance since 2002 will be determined over the next three months. No matter how the season plays out, it will end one way or another.

Valentine is going to enjoy every minute of it. He spent more than a year working to get back on the field. He wants to soak up his last season while he can. It'll be gone in a blink.

“Just being here. Being at all the events whether it's work outs, practices, community service, everything,” Valentine said. “Whether it's a bunch of guys hanging at someone's house, you got to get to everything just be with the boys.”

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