It’s a clichéd question football coaches confront during the preseason: Are your rebuilding or reloading?
Belton would seem to be rebuilding, because the Pirates will be young and missing several talented players from last season’s team. But that’s not coach Todd Vaughn’s take as he puts together these Pirates.
With the Pirates’ recent past success, this team won’t need a complete rebuild.
I think (we’re reloading) in some spots,” Vaughn said. “In other spots we’re going to have some young, inexperienced kids. And that’s the nature of the beast. We think they’re going to be OK but it’s one of those situations you’ve got to wait to see how it goes week one and go from there.”
Belton has five offensive and six defensive starters back from last year’s 7-5 team, the second consecutive Pirates squad to reach the Class 5 District 6 championship game. To fill the missing gaps, Vaughn now has the luxury of picking from players who weren’t around the last time Belton had a losing season.
“Our kids are proud of how we’ve changed the culture here and how we’ve improved,” said Vaughn, who is starting his seventh season at Belton. “But we’re not satisfied. We really haven’t accomplished some of the things we want to accomplish. We’re excited where we’re at but we’re really excited about where we think we’re going.”
Belton is going to need a new quarterback to replace two-year starter Bart Harris, who threw for 2,002 yards and 22 touchdowns last season and earned chances to walk on at Nebraska and Tennessee before deciding to play at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Vaughn is going with Andrew Clark, a senior who backed up Harris last season.
“Andrew’s been in our system since eighth grade,” Vaughn said. “He knows what we’re doing and what we expect from him. And he’s doing a good job. He just had a good quarterback in front of him last year.”
Vaughn said Clark will give the Pirates more of a running option than Harris, who was a classic drop-back passer. And since Clark has been around awhile, it hasn’t taken long for the Pirates to adjust to his style.
“We’ve been playing together since eighth grade so the chemistry has always been there,” Belton wide receiver/defensive back Antione Nunn Jr. said. “It’s not totally new. I’ve been playing with him for a long time.”
Nunn, an all-Suburban Blue Conference defensive back last season, is one of a handful of experienced receivers who will help fill the void left by standouts Jayden Clark (827 receiving yards, 11 TDs) and running back Dante Madden (400 receiving yards, 5 TDs). Senior Zeke Henson, also an all-conference pick, made 49 catches for 621 yards and five touchdowns last season. Dahavon Powell, a starter last year at safety, will also be seeing time at receiver.
Madden also had a monster year running the ball last season with 1,138 yards and eight TDs, but Vaughn believes junior Jamall Baker can help fill that gap. Baker had 92 yards and a touchdown running behind Madden last year, and he’ll have help from sophomore Ayden Holt. Holt started at safety last year and will also be playing defense.
“We have some experience actually at our skill spots,” Vaughn said. “And we think we’ve got some good skill kids who will play on both sides of the ball. We feel good about where we’re at skill kid-wise.”
Nunn, an all-conference defensive back last season, will be one of the Pirates’ defensive mainstays this season as well. Holt and linebacker Powell were all-conference selections too, and senior Tyler Mathews is a returning starter at outside linebacker.
Belton will have size and experience up front with five senior linemen: left tackle Sam Howard, left guard Isaic Millington, center Chance Simpson, right guard Mason Goffoy and right tackle Christian Yoksh. Some of that group will play both offense and defense.
“We’ll be pretty big and physical up front,” Vaughn said. “They’re working hard, but they’ve got to come together as unit and I think they’re starting to do that. I think the potential there for that to be a strength.”
Belton’s schedule has a new look this season with the move up from the Suburban Blue Conference to the Suburban White. Longtime rival Raymore-Peculiar is still on the schedule, as is former Suburban Blue league rival Kearney.
Columbia Battle could be on it again, too, if Belton makes it all the way to another district final. Battle ended Belton’s last two seasons, and the Pirates would like another shot at Battle and a district title.
Nunn is confident the Pirates will reload well enough to do it.
“We have the skill position players, we have the line, we have everything,” Nunn said. “I just think we’ve got to come out and play hard.”