COLUMBIA — When Chad Masters began to build a new football program at Fr. Tolton Catholic High School three years ago, he had to start with the absolute basics.
"We had kids who didn't even know how to put on their shoulder pads and helmets," Masters said. "So, the short-term goal then was to get those guys to be able to do that on their own."
A football program isn't built in a day. But heading into its fourth season — and third on the varsity level — the Trailblazers are hoping to finally see results from their growth.
In Tolton's first two seasons playing varsity in MHSSA Class 2, the team had a 3-16 record. But Masters, who was an assistant at successful programs like Centralia, Jefferson City and Hickman before taking over at Tolton, knows winning takes time.
"You have to learn patience and know that the winning will come eventually, but for now you have to keep plugging away," Masters said. "Maybe it will happen for these guys this year, maybe it will be guys five years from now. But they're all part of the process to get us to the point where we eventually want to be."
The coaching staff believes accomplishing a number of short-term goals will help the program achieve its long-term goal of becoming a consistently winning team.
Building a program from scratch is no easy task, especially at a Catholic school with an enrollment of, according to Masters, 230 students.
"I think to develop the program to what it's become in three years from where we started is almost miraculous," senior quarterback and safety Christian Elliot said. "It's something I don't think a whole lot of people could do, and (Masters) and the coaches have done a great job developing us mentally, morally and physically."
Tolton earned only one more win in 2013 than it did in its inaugural season. It improved slightly in losses — but the picture still wasn't pretty. In 2012, the Trailblazers lost eight games by an average margin of 47.6 points. Last year, its average margin of defeat was 36.9.
"Our first varsity year, we weren't in any of our games except one," junior offensive lineman Patrick Flesch said. "Last year, we were in, like, five games. So now we have to learn how to win those close games."
Experience and physical growth has helped the Trailblazers improve, Masters and his players said.
"We're just a little bigger, a little faster, a little more experienced now," Masters said of his team, which returns seven seniors. "Physically, we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were three years ago."
Players who have been with the program since day one, like Elliott, remember how tough it was when the program was in its infancy.
"Our first game (at the junior varsity level) was chaos," Elliott said. "We were smaller than everyone else, everyone was faster and everything was happening faster because we didn't know the game as well as our opponents."
In three calendar years, Elliott has gone from a newcomer to the sport to the captain of the Trailblazers. Last year, he threw for 643 yards and amassed 957 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, according to hsgamecenter.com. In 2014, Elliott will again be called upon to shoulder the load offensively.
Masters praises Elliott's athleticism, strength and versatility.
But the team has also improved in immeasurable ways since the beginning of the program, such as knowledge of the game.
"They have a higher football IQ now," Masters said. "Before, they might ask what a blitz is. Now we can talk football better with them."
Heading into the program's third year in varsity, the Trailblazers believe it's time for the framework they've built to translate into being more wins.
"We stopped using excuses of being a young team," junior running back and linebacker Will Tindal said. "We're just ready to get the job done and finally finish with a winning season."
Although the program is still young, the Trailblazers are seeking to establish a history and reputation of a successful program.
"We don't have many traditions, we don't have much of a past," Masters said. "We've got to create all that. But that takes time."
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