MOKANE - Prospects, both internal and external, have progressively trended upward for the South Callaway Bulldogs in each of Tim Rulo's six seasons as head coach.
South Callaway has put together a stretch of four straight 10-win seasons, topped off by a 10-2 mark in the 2013 campaign that culminated with a district-title loss to Blair Oaks for the second straight year. The Bulldogs once again have lofty aspirations for the 2014 season and were ranked No. 4 in Class 2 in the media's preseason state rankings released earlier this week.
With six starters coming back on both offense and defense, South Callaway launches its season tonight at its upgraded football facility against Putnam County. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
"Having expectations, and high expectations, are great," Rulo said after practice Wednesday night on the team's new FieldTurf surface. "They're almost better than rules because ultimately, you're either going to live up to them (expectations) and you're going to rise up to them - or you're going to struggle.
"In the end, you're only going to be accountable to yourself and what you're able to do. ... It's been awesome that we've been able to change the expectation, where they almost expect that, "Hey, we better do this, (or) that better occur.' A lot's changed in the 16-plus years this program has been around."
Senior quarterback Troy Hentges returns for his second year as a starter in steering the Bulldogs' flexbone spread option. The 6-foot, 180-pound Hentges completed 59-of-108 passes (55 percent) last season for 1,073 yards, 12 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Hentges also inflicted damage with his feet, rushing for 405 yards (5.0 average) and nine scores.
"He did a great job as a junior coming in, and I think he has the potential to do just as well if not even better this year," Rulo said. "I've been really impressed with how well he's throwing the ball.
Hentges will have one of the most sensational skill players in Mid-Missouri - senior slot receiver Cory Hanger - at his disposal again. Hanger (5-10, 160) paced South Callaway in rushing last season with 753 yards (10.6 average) and 11 touchdowns, and was second on the team in receiving with 13 catches for 287 yards (22.1 average) and two scores.
"What makes him so special, to me, is the humility that he brings to the position," Rulo said. "I don't ever see him gloat, I don't ever see him demand the football, I don't ever see him question what we're doing, what we're calling as coaches.
"... To have his skill set, plus that attitude, is a really great combination."
Senior Mason Shoemaker (5-9, 150) will line up opposite Hanger as the Bulldogs' other slot receiver. Shoemaker finished with just three catches for 42 yards in 2013 but ran for 302 yards (9.2 average) and six touchdowns.
"Mason provides such a speed dynamic when he really wants to," Rulo said. "... You're talking about a guy who can run a 10.3 (seconds) in the 100 (yards). He can straight fly.
"Really it's just a matter of him taking that on the football field. There are times when he does it and (snaps fingers), he's gone. Hopefully the turf can provide him with an opportunity to do that; you don't have to worry about mud or anything like that, and he can take it to the next level."
Meanwhile, the blazing speed of Hanger and Shoemaker will be complemented by a pair of taller, sturdier wide receivers - seniors Luke Horstman (6-2, 205) and Dylan Hare (6-0, 205). Horstman finished with nine receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown last season, while Hare had only two catches for 18 yards.
"They might be two of the biggest receivers that we've had in a long time," Rulo said. "... Those are some big, old cats. They are fierce blockers out there. They get excited about blocking, which is awesome. They are stoked; they just love it when they get to go out there and pancake corner(back)s.
"They both do a good job of high-pointing the ball, both of them do a really good job of taking care of it. ... They have good hands. It's going to be our challenge to try and get them the ball."
Flanking Hentges in South Callaway's backfield will be senior fullback Dakoda Ballard (5-9, 195), who replaces the graduated Zach Marty (546 yards rushing, 6 TDs). The Bulldogs also lost Garner Rudroff (466 yards, 7 scores) and Smith Kemper (367 yards, 3 TDs) to graduation.
"Dakoda brings a different element just because he's so much bigger," Rulo said. "... So that provides a whole different level to have that kind of fullback back there, who can just go and roll over people."
The Bulldogs' offensive line will be led by senior Michael Witt (5-9, 170), a three-year starter at center. Senior Jacob Smith (5-11, 205) and junior Dylan Bailey (5-11, 220) will man the guard positions, while seniors Trevor Miller (5-11, 190) and Austin Pierce (5-10, 195) will line up at tackle.
South Callaway's 3-5-3 defensive scheme will be anchored on the line by Ballard and Horstman as returning starters at noseguard and tackle, respectively. Smith and Bailey will share time at the other tackle spot.
The Bulldogs' linebacker corps will include Hare (outside) and Miller (middle), Shoemaker at the other outside position, and Whitt and junior Dillon Stone (5-10, 225) on the inside.
Hanger - a first-team all-state selection at free safety in 2013 - will be a tormenting presence again in South Callaway's secondary. He led the Bulldogs in both tackles (87) and interceptions (5) last season and also scored two defensive touchdowns.
"What I've been impressed with defensively is just his knowledge of the game," Rulo said. "He does a great job of getting us in position to be successful. He's not going to make all of the plays, he's got 10 other guys in front of him that are going to make plays.
"Simply, he helps get the defense lined up."
Meanwhile, Hentges and senior Tyler Adams (5-6, 145) will hold down the cornerback positions.
Rulo hopes the Bulldogs - featuring 17 seniors - will be a loose bunch that will make the most of their opportunities in the 2014 season.
"We're so blessed to have this awesome facility, and now we just want to have a lot of fun this season," Rulo said. "These seniors have been playing together, and I remember them playing together since fifth grade. It was about the time I came back here, and I remember, literally, watching them play fifth- and sixth-grade football.
"It's been really fun to watch them. I'm excited, and I really just want them to go and have fun - just unleash all of the experience that they've had and have a blast."