COLUMBIA, ILL. — Practices are faster but the game has never been slower for Eli Wagner.
A senior linebacker and tight end for the Columbia football team, Wagner is one of 17 seniors on the roster. Most of those upperclassmen have contributed to the varsity since they were freshmen or sophomores. They have paid their dues. Now it's time to reap their rewards.
“One of the intangibles a lot of people don't realize with experience is the game slows down a lot for all of us,” Wagner said. “I've looked forward to my senior season my whole life. We've got a good group of guys that I've grown up with playing football.”
Columbia is the No. 6 small school in the STLhighschoolsports.com preseason rankings.
The Eagles went 8-3 last season and made their eighth consecutive playoff appearance. They were upended in the second round of the Class 4A tournament by Taylorville.
There are nine starters returning to the offense including five offensive linemen. Among them is senior Ryan Hornbostel (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), who will play tackle.
“We've got five guys back,” Columbia coach Scott Horner said. “We're not super huge but the line is athletic.”
The Eagles have experienced athletes all over the place. They bring back nearly every skill player on offense including senior quarterback Nic Horner (5-10, 160), who threw for 1,515 yards, 14 touchdowns and was intercepted nine times. He rushed for 456 yards and eight touchdowns as well.
Senior receiver Sam Horner (5-11, 185) led the Eagles with 31 receptions for 476 yards and six touchdowns. Senior running back Ronnie Hunsaker (5-11, 165) was the only player to break 1,000 combined rushing and receiving yards as he rushed for a 844 yards and 13 touchdowns, and caught 10 passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior running back Donovan Bieber (6-1, 175) powered his way to 703 yards on the ground with seven scores.
The defense brings back eight regulars who contributed last season. Wagner (6-2, 200) racked up 74 tackles at linebacker. Sam Horner made 58 tackles and two interceptions at safety. Hunsaker returns at linebacker where he had 48 tackles. Junior Londyn Little (5-8, 152) had 50 tackles at defensive back.
What drove Columbia's seniors in the offseason was the finality of what's in store. Many of them have played together for nearly their entire young lives. Some won't ever play football again after this season.
“We've been playing together since grade school. Not only do we have that three years of high school but we all have that bond of playing 10 plus years together,” Sam Horner said. “To come out here one last time is really special. I think it helps the underclassmen to show them if they stick together what they can accomplish.”
The Eagles will find out where they stand on opening night. Columbia hosts a hungry and talented Mascoutah, which it beat last season in the final moments of regulation, 36-35. The Indians will be ready for a different result this time around and Columbia knows it.
“We have a motto around here that's 'respect all and fear none.' Mascoutah is a great team, they've got a lot of returning players like us,” Wagner said. “We're going to go out there and respect how talented they are but we're not going to be afraid. We've prepared and done all this work in the summer for a reason.”