Glitz and glamor graduated.
Grit and grime remain.
Just how gritty and grimy the Cardinal Ritter football team is this fall will determine whether or not it reaches the mountaintop.
“We took the luxury stuff off but we returned a lot of guys,” Ritter coach Brandon Gregory said.
Gone are receivers Jameson Williams, who signed with Ohio State, and Cam Coleman, who went to Western Michigan. They took with them more than 2,400 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns. Safety Keith Jones was a huge piece of the puzzle but now he's at Western Michigan.
The Lions still have senior quarterback Mekhi Hagens (6-foot-3, 195 pounds). Standout sophomore wide receiver Luther Burden (6-0, 180) is a year wiser, faster and stronger. What has Gregory and his staff excited is all five offensive and defensive linemen are back. Victory is decided in the trenches, and Ritter has talent and experience up front.
“They're in huge positions and positions that win games. You have to win up front,” Gregory said. “I feel better than I did last year, this year, because we're returning our O-line, D-line and quarterback.”
Ritter is the No. 3 small school in the STLhighschoolsports.com preseason rankings.
Gregory had a lot to feel good about last season. The Lions went 14-1 and played for the Class 3 state championship where they were handed a familiar result by a familiar opponent. Trinity won the championship game 45-19. Over the last two seasons Ritter is 23-3. All three of its losses have come at the hands of Trinity.
This season, Ritter won't have to see Trinity. When the Missouri State High School Activities Association released the 2019 season classifications and district assignments on Aug. 23, Trinity remained in Class 3 but Ritter dropped into Class 2. The Lions share a district with Lutheran North, which has reached back-to-back Class 2 semifinals.
Gregory didn't know what the postseason road would look like as his schedule came together. In an effort to better prepare his team for what could have been a potential rematch with the Titans, Gregory upped the degree of difficulty. Ritter will open at defending Illinois Class 7A champion Nazareth Academy, which brings junior quarterback JJ McCarthy, who has verbally committed to Michigan and is regarded as one of the top prospects at his position in the country.
Gregory doesn't know how the Lions will fare. It might even get ugly. But after winning 14 games by an average score of 44-12 only to fall short in the championship, Ritter's coach took a different approach.
“Week 1 is going to be tough. I feel this is where we're at with our program,” Gregory said. “I'd rather go play Nazareth and hopefully win the game but give us a test to see what we need to work on as opposed to finding that out at the state game.”
There are no mysteries up front with the senior-laden line. Center Sean Brew (5-9, 260), left guard Devon Watson (5-11, 265), left tackle Joe Moore III (6-4, 245), right guard Jalen Prince (5-11, 285) and Anthony Baker (6-1, 267) are prepared for what they believe is another lengthy playoff run.
“We wanted to come back harder, stronger, bigger, faster,” Baker said. “We wanted everything coming our way. That's why we have a harder schedule.”
Hagens is back under center after he threw for 4,511 yards and 54 touchdowns and was intercepted five times. Predominantly a pocket passer, Hagens is eager to show he can tuck and run when the chance presents itself.
Burden steps in as the top wide receiver after having Williams and Coleman on the field with him drawing defensive attention. Burden hauled in 48 receptions for 1,191 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's joined by junior receiver Keavion Long (5-8, 165), who had 38 receptions for 350 yards and five touchdowns. Senior Latrez Shelton (6-1, 175) will get back to his receiver roots after verbally committing to South Dakota State to play cornerback.
Junior running back William Jackson (5-8, 170) rushed for 440 yards and seven touchdowns last season to lead all returning players.
The defensive line is made up of the offensive line, but unleashed. Moore is one of the most sought after recruits in the country as a defensive end. Baker has several NCAA Division I scholarship offers for his work on the defensive line. They combined for 175 tackles and four sacks.
Defensive back Jaden “Slim” Williams (5-10, 170) had 111 tackles and two interceptions last season. Shelton had two interceptions, too.
Gregory said he'd never wish to lose a game, much less one of the magnitude of a state championship, but he's watched his team refocus itself in the offseason. There are players that the pain of losing hurts for a moment. For others it becomes a day-to-day itch they can't scratch and it drives them to action. Gregory has seen more of the latter than the former.
“You could tell it really bothered this group of guys when we lost in the state championship,” Gregory said. “Some people just get a taste and they're cool. These guys got a taste and they want to go seal the deal.”