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Ray Kauling's friends told him he'd be back. He didn't believe them.

After an eight-year run at Mater Dei, his alma mater, and seven years at Centralia, where he helped turn the football program into a South Seven Conference contender and perennial playoff qualifier, Kauling was hired on as Wesclin's athletics director in 2016. His transition into administration all but sealing the deal he wouldn't return to the sidelines.

But it didn't.

His friends were right. Kauling is back and loving every minute of it.

“I still had that bug,” Kauling said. “I missed being out at practice and teaching the game.”

It was a unique situation that pulled him back in. Ric Johns resigned from the top job at Wesclin in the spring to take the same position at Jerseyville. It seemed a tailor-made opportunity for Kauling to make his return.

“The timing was a lot of it,” Kauling said.

The team he inherited isn't half-bad, either. Wesclin went 9-1 last fall, completed its first unbeaten regular season in school history and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. The Warriors knocked Columbia from its perch atop the Cahokia Conference by handing the Eagles their first league loss since 2011.

And there's a whole mess of guys who helped make that happen back for their senior season.

There are seven players returning who started on each side of the ball, and six of them were all-conference selections.

The strength of this year's team appears to be the same as last year's — the offensive line. The Warriors return four starters from last season and they are a massive group of thumpers.

Seniors Jacob Brown (6-foot-2, 300 pounds), Kolden Rapien (6-4, 310), Christian Bair (5-10, 260), Hunter Doverspike (6-1, 295) and junior Kolbie Erickson (6-1, 250) will clear the way for standout senior running back Gavin Bilbruck (5-10, 205). Bilbruck rushed for 1,206 yards and scored 15 touchdowns.

The offensive line earned plaudits last season for how they went about their business.

“Their guys up front, they're mean,” Columbia coach Scott Horner said. “I mean that in a good way. (Wesclin) has an edge about it.”

Last season the Warriors' bread and butter was an option rushing offense with four players that rushed for more than 700 yards and six touchdowns a piece.

Kauling has a different vision for this year's team. He spent the offseason installing a brand-new offensive scheme. Senior Brandt Goings (5-8, 155) takes over at quarterback.

“I'm trying to fit that square peg in a round hole,” Kauling said. “We're going to be in the spread and shotgun. It's a different offense than they've seen here the last five years.”

Wesclin's defense will be tough up front as many of the offensive linemen will rotate in. There are some holes to fill at linebacker, but Kauling is optimistic there is enough talent and depth the Warriors will be able to limit the number of two-way starters.

“We feel we'll be able to play 18 or 19 kids,” Kauling said. “We try to get as many people on the field as possible.”

Last season the Warriors might have slid under the radar of some of their opponents. That went away when they rallied in the final two minutes at Columbia to dethrone the Eagles. Heavy is the head that wears the crown and it's sitting pretty on Wesclin's head at the moment and everyone is coming for it.

“We know there's a target on our back,” Kauling said. “We're going to do everything we can to not let that happen.”

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