COLUMBIA — Since 2011, seniors Orie Hemme and Austin Gregory have seen Fr. Totlon Regional Catholic High School's football program evolve from an inexperienced junior varsity squad into a motivated varsity team.
Hemme, the starting center who will see time on the defensive line, and Gregory, a starting running back and linebacker, said their team has come a long way from its first year in 2011, when it practiced in a cow pasture. Hemme said the team had to "watch out for the ditch on the sideline."
Coach: Chad Masters (3rd year)
Last season: 1-7 (lost to Blair Oaks in district tournament)
Returning starters: 9 offensive, 10 defensive
Friday: at Valle Catholic, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 6: vs. Southern Boone, 6 p.m.
Sept. 13: at Westran, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20: vs. Tipton, 6 p.m.
Sept. 28: vs. Marionville, 1 p.m.
Oct. 4: at Harrisburg, 7 p.m.
Oct. 11: at Missouri Military Academy, 7 p.m.
Oct. 19: vs. South Calloway, 1 p.m.
Oct. 26: at Sacred Heart, 7 p.m.
"The first year, we were in a cow pasture because we didn't have the school built. Last year was a step up, and we started to practice out here," Hemme said about the new practice field.
"It makes us better as a team, let's be real," Gregory said, seconding Hemme's evaluation of the improved facilities.
The pair are excited to see how much better the Trailblazers can be in the school's second season of varsity play. Their excitement is underscored by the fact that they were both sidelined by injuries last year. Hemme never saw the playing field after he tore ligaments in his leg prior to the season, and Gregory was knocked out with a fractured collarbone midway through the year.
"It was painful," Hemme said of what it was like to watch instead of play.
But "we were at every single practice, every single game," Gregory said.
Even though they were relegated to being spectators, their injuries did not keep them from contributing to the team.
"There was a lot of sideline coaching," Hemme said. "We coached them up the best we could from (our) experience."
"We both got better as leaders," Gregory said, explaining they tried to take on a "teacher's role" to help the players behind them understand their assignments and responsibilities.
Their selflessness and team commitment during last season meshes with the Blazer's 2013 motto "I.N.A.M." (pronounced "E-nam"), which stands for "It's Not About Me." The team yells this in its final huddle after practice, before ending with a prayer.
Coach Chad Masters said the motto came from the Naval Academy and the team uses it on "multiple levels."
"From a football standpoint, from a community and spiritual standpoint, you gotta make it about something bigger than yourself," he said.
From a football standpoint, Masters said the motto refers to every player's need to know his role and "make things click" because football is such a team-oriented and "orchestrated game."
Masters will orchestrate his team's offense around quarterback Christian Elliott.
"We're always gonna take one of our best kids and put him at quarterback," Masters said, referring to Elliot's athleticism as the "feature part" of the Blazers' spread attack.
But don't confuse Masters' version of the spread as a pass-happy offense. He said the Blazers are a "run-first team," and he referenced his playing and coaching roots in option football and Wing-T formations.
"Often times, we're gonna spread you out to run the ball," Masters said. "We want to physically run the football, and we're going to find ways to do that."
While the run game is the priority, Masters said his team would strive to be balanced.
"We definitely wanna base things off the run, ... but we'll throw the ball around," he said.
Masters said that a 50-50 or 60-40 breakdown (run vs. pass) would be ideal, and the spread "allows flexibility" for Tolton as a developing program.
Defensively, the Blazers will operate out of the 4-3.
"We are an aggressive, attacking style" defense, Masters said.
Although he didn't share as much detail about his defensive mindset, he said gap control would be a priority and the team would sometimes show a 5-man front.
"We're a little undersized, and we're not the fastest team in the world, but we're gonna try to play fast," he said.
Tolton's season is scheduled to start Friday when the team goes on the road to take on Valle Catholic, last year's state runner-up in Class 1. Valle beat the Blazers 61-0 last season, but Hemme and Gregory hope they can use "the great equalizer" to make this year's matchup more competitive.
"The great equalizer" refers to a Sports Illustrated picture that Masters has taped to the wall of his office. The picture shows two opposing linemen getting scrappy at the bottom of a pile, and Masters and his coaches use the picture as a joking reminder of the need to be physical to level the playing field.
In Hemme's words, "the great equalizer" starts up front, where the Blazers are undersized.
"We're not the biggest — there's a lot of linemen that are bigger than us. But coach always talks about the equalizer. You give it to them, so they can't give it to you," he said, slapping his right elbow into the palm of his left hand.
"They want us to be nice guys off the field, but on the field they want us to be mean and nasty, which pretty much means that we shouldn't take things lightly," Gregory said.
"We're always gonna be undersized, we're gonna be slower than a lot of teams — we're always gonna be the underdog," Gregory said. "It's gotta be hard work and determination. That's a lot of what football is, a lot of grit and hard work."
Hemme and Gregory are optimistic that grit and hard work will pay off this year.
"I think that it's going to be a lot better," Hemme said. "We're gonna have some growing pains because this is only our second year of varsity play, but we're leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year. That's very clear — we're actually going to compete with people."
"Yea, I mean, this is our last year, so we're obviously going to give it our all," Gregory added.
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.