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For the first time in seven years, the road to the Cahokia Conference championship doesn't go through Columbia.

Eagles football coach Scott Horner isn't all that fond of it.

“It should motivate our kids,” he said. “If it doesn't they're playing the wrong sport.”

Conference rival Wesclin scored in the final two minutes to secure a 21-16 victory last season. It broke the Eagles' 31-game conference win streak, which went all the way back to 2011.

It was another tough break in a season full of them. Columbia was ravaged by injuries on both sides of the ball. Battered and bruised, the Eagles did enough to earn a Class 4A playoff berth but were knocked out in the first round by Herscher. Columbia finished 5-5.

Out of last season's misery comes optimism for this fall. The young players who were forced into more prominent roles earlier than expected gained valuable varsity experience.

“With all the injuries last year we had a ton of guys get thrown into the fire,” Horner said. “We lost a couple of key kids, but we've got a lot of guys back.”

Back and ready to reclaim the spot atop the Cahokia Conference. Columbia is the No. 9 small school in the preseason football rankings.

Junior quarterback Nic Horner (5-foot-9, 150 pounds) completed 96 of his 171 passes for 1,317 yards, 16 touchdowns and was intercepted five times. He rushed for another three scores, too.

“He's grown two or three inches and put on 15 pounds,” Scott Horner said of Nic, his son. “We're expecting big things out of him.”

Junior running back Donovan Bieber (6-0, 170) stepped into a starting role when then-senior standout Colton Byrd went down with an injury. Bieber jumped in and rushed for 393 yards and six touchdowns on 41 carries. He averaged nearly 10 yards per touch. He's joined by junior Ronnie Hunsaker (5-10, 155) to form what is expected to be a potent backfield.

“They're both track guys,” Scott Horner said. “They can scoot.”

Junior receiver Sam Horner (5-11, 185), the quarterback's brother, caught 16 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns last season.

The Eagles have four of their five starters returning on the offensive line. Junior Ryan Weatherford (5-9, 195) will be at center with juniors Cade Napier (6-4, 255) and Connor Holten (6-2, 260) beside him at guard. The tackles will be senior Cole Khoury (6-8, 230) and junior Ryan Hornbostel (6-6, 230). Hornbostel started at defensive end as a sophomore.

“The offense looks good with a lot of experience,” Scott Horner said.

The defense is in a similar boat. Senior linebacker Blake Wagner (5-10, 190) had 80 tackles and a sack as a junior. Senior Brandon Kuchinski (6-0, 170) returns after starting all last season at cornerback.

Senior Josh Marion (5-7, 140) moves from his starting role at cornerback last season to safety. Sam Horner returns at safety this season. Sophomore Londyn Little (5-6, 150) will line up at cornerback and slot receiver to maximize his speed.

Columbia hopes the tough lessons of last year will yield results this season.

“It was terrible going through it,” Scott Horner said. “Another year of strength and growth should be beneficial to us.”

If Columbia is going to reclaim its spot atop the conference it will have to go through Wesclin, literally. The rivals will meet Sept. 14 at Wesclin. The Eagles have a healthy respect for the reigning champs. They're looking forward to seeing them again.

“Until someone knocks them off, (Wesclin) has the upper hand,” Horner said. “The conference goes through them.”

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