HIGHLAND — Jim Warnecke has no plans for a "rebuilding phase."
The Highland football coach, entering his ninth season at the helm, has built the Bulldogs program in such a way that there is no need for a rebuilding year.
"It's a new team, but it's still the Highland Bulldogs," Warnecke said. "We made it very clear that the torch has been passed. Sam LaPorta, Brady Feldman and Jack Etter aren't going to make plays for us any more. But these boys are up for the challenge."
His senior leaders have taken that torch and run with it.
"As the offensive line, we've got to step up because we're the experience of the team," senior offensive lineman Payton Cave said. "We've got some young players, but everyone has the work ethic and I'm confident that we can win the conference and be a playoff team again."
Cave and his fellow linemates will lead the charge for Highland, the No. 5 small school in the STLhighschoolsports.com preseason rankings.
The Bulldogs finished 11-1 last season, losing to Joliet Catholic in a Class 5A quarterfinal. Under Warnecke, the Bulldogs have a .739 winning percentage (65 wins) and have captured five of the last six Mississippi Valley Conference championships with seven consecutive playoff appearances.
There won't be any flashy plays made by Wernecke's former go-to players — Etter, Feldman and LaPorta — who combined to account for more than 4,500 yards of offense for the Bulldogs last season.
The Bulldogs may not have the same offensive swagger that has helped them win 26 consecutive regular-season games, but Warnecke is confident it will return with help from the returning core.
"We've got one of the best front lines in all the area and I'll put them up against anyone," Warnecke said. "We'll strap it up on Friday night and when we push people around, we're going to get that swagger pretty quick."
Having that size and muscle helps, but having a cohesive unit that returns four of its five starters is an even bigger boost.
"It feels good knowing that you've got guys who are just experienced as you across the board and know what they're doing," Highland junior lineman Sam Buck said. "The backfield can trust us and get yards."
That experience will help, especially when they line up to protect a teammate who has very little of it on the gridiron.
After a fierce quarterback competition this offseason, Brent Wuebbels won the starting job to become the first freshman signal caller to lead the Bulldogs offense during Warnecke's tenure at the helm.
"If we didn't have the line in front of him, I wouldn't have even considered putting a freshman back there," Warnecke said.
For most on the front line, not much has changed with Wuebbels under center.
"He hasn't really missed a beat. He's doing senior-level plays back there and not a lot of stuff has gone wrong," senior offensive lineman Trevor Zobrist said.
For as well as Wuebbels and the other new faces have progressed, Highland's skill positions will still need some time to break in.
So will the playmakers on defense, meaning the Bulldogs will hang their hat on the big men up front.
"As green as we are at the skill positions on the offensive side of the ball, the same goes for our defense. Our guys are going to get better every week because that's how we do things," Warnecke said. "As far as what we're relying on, it's not the defense, but it's our big boys upfront on both sides."