It’s a time-tested mantra uttered by almost every football coach at the start of the season: Avoiding injuries will be key to the success or failure of the team.
The season doesn’t begin for another nine days at Lee’s Summit, and the Tigers already must deal with losing two quarterbacks, including the expected starter. A tough setback, of course, but not one head coach Eric Thomas doesn’t think the Tigers won’t overcome.
“Our kids pick up and move on,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to figure what the next guys can do and get them ready.”
The next man up is Darrias Pearsall, a sophomore with no varsity experience at the position last season. That’s a tall order for any underclassman, but Thomas likes what he’s seen so far from Pearsall, and he likes the fact that he’ll be surrounded by seven returning offensive starters from last season’s 7-3 team.
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Thomas thought Lee’s Summit would have some experience at quarterback, even with Suburban Gold Conference offensive player of the year Dalton Hill graduated and off to Missouri State. Grant Baird, a senior and Hill’s backup last season, seemed the logical choice to take over from Hill.
That was until Baird fractured an ankle during drills over the summer, ending his season. Sophomore Ryan Belt, another quarterback prospect, is also gone for the year with a knee injury also incurred over the summer.
“He’s still out here leading and talking to the guys and being a part of what we’re doing,” Thomas said of Baird. “He’s a special young man and I hate it for him.”
Thomas said Pearsall doesn’t come in to the job completely green. He played quarterback all during summer drills, and he already knew the offense since he was part of the program last season.
But Pearsall still hasn’t been tested in varsity action, and he’ll still be called on to fill the shoes of a quarterback who threw for 2,320 yards and 23 touchdowns and rushed for 743 yards last season. Thomas hopes to stick to the pass-oriented offense that has worked so well over the years for the Tigers, but he said that will depend on Pearsall’s development.
“We’re going to do whatever he allows us to do, basically,” Thomas said. “And he’s doing a good job. I’ve been throwing a lot at him the last couple of weeks. We have a lot of confidence in him.”
Pearsall will have the luxury of breaking in surrounded by veteran players and proven playmakers. Senior Somaj Brewer is back at wide receiver, where he totaled 938 receiving yards and 17 TD catches last season. Senior tailback Preston Whitworth saw action there last season at receiver and as a speedy alternative to the graduated Salvatore Garozzo, and the offense line sports a trio of 300-pounders in returning starters TJ Kennedy and junior Drew Epperson and senior center Gavin Curless.
“We’re probably as big on the offensive line as we’ve ever been,” Thomas said. “Hopefully we can push some guys around a little bit.”
Thomas hopes that line gives Pearsall ample time and protection as he gets his feet wet. And with so many experienced players in the huddle, he won’t have to take total control of the offense right away.
“The best thing about it is the pieces of the puzzle around him,” Thomas said. “There’s some really good leadership around him, so he doesn’t have to necessarily be in that leadership role right off the bat in our offense. He’s got Preston in the backfield with him, he’s got seniors up front with him and he has senior receivers, guys that are going to make plays for him.”
Lee’s Summit’s defense, however, won’t be quite so experienced. Seniors Alec Casady and Caden Perry are the only returning starters, although senior Evan Sanders did start the last game of the year at cornerback. Perry returns at safety, while Casady moves from nose guard to linebacker.
Thomas said most of the new faces on defense will be players like Ben Weaver, a senior starting linebacker who played mostly on junior varsity last season. But it was a successful JV team that Thomas believes has the newcomers ready to step up.
“We continue to grow,” Thomas said. “We’re going to rely on some speed and some athleticism over there. With nine new starters over there, we’re going to our work cut out for us. It might be a little rough early on, but we’ve got to stay the course and keep working.”
The schedule will let Lee’s Summit know right away what needs work. After hosting a jamboree Friday night with Class 4 state champion Harrisonville, Class 4 runner-up Kearney and Liberty, the Tigers will open the season Aug. 18 at Bud Hertzog Stadium against Class 6 runner-up Blue Springs. The game will be broadcast by Spectrum Sports TV.
“You’ve got to play them sometime,” Thomas said. “Might as well play them right off the bat and get a test of where you’re at. We’ll find out a lot in week one. We’ll find out a lot about what kind of football team we are and where we need to improve.”