The early morning isn’t exactly the favorite time of day for Park Hill junior Chester Graves.
It’s the wake-up call he finds particularly bothersome. In fact, if Graves had the option, he says he could sleep until 4 p.m. every day, but obligations have a way of ruining those plans.
Yet as his phone buzzed at 5:30 a.m. Monday, he climbed out of bed without complaint.
A brand-new football season awaited.
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Missouri high schools held the first day of football practice Monday. And it’s been a long-time coming for a Park Hill team that fell two victories shy of a Missouri Class 5 state title last season.
“I’ve been waiting all week for it,” said Graves, a defensive end who led the Trojans with 15 sacks last season. “I don’t know how to keep busy without football.”
Park Hill starts the 2015 season with a trip to Blue Springs South on Aug. 21.
The Trojans opened the 2014 campaign with a 43-18 win against Blue Springs South, the first of 13 straight victories before they lost to Nixa in the Class 5 semifinals.
Nine months later, even more than those 13 victories, it’s the one loss that has stuck with the bulk of the returning players. Park Hill welcomes back seven defensive starters and nearly half of its group on the offensive side.
“I try not to think about it, but it’s there,” said senior Matt Harris, who rushed for a team-best 1,411 yards and seven touchdowns last season. “You have to think past it. But it makes you want to work harder because when you get so close, you want to get to that next step this time.”
Oak Grove took that step last season. The Panthers began practice early Monday — also before sunrise — as the defending Missouri Class 3 state champions. In their quest for a repeat, the Panthers open with a home game against Holden on Aug. 21.
But while they returned Monday as champions, Park Hill returned as simply hopeful, confident and motivated.
“These guys are hungry after that last loss at the end of the year, so they feel like there’s something to prove,” Park Hill coach Josh Hood said. “They feel like last year a lot of people still thought they were a fluke.
“The kids did a really great job in the winter, spring and summer (of) coming out here and proven themselves in the weight room first and then coming out here and fighting for a job.”
That hunger is a shared feeling among other teams in the Kansas City area.
Rockhurst reached the Missouri Class 6 state championship game last November, but it fell 31-24 to Christian Brothers College. On Aug. 22, the Hawklets will face Rock Bridge at Faurot Field on Missouri’s campus, a game that will be the final matchup of a season-opening triple-header.
Kearney was close, too. The Bulldogs were a Missouri Class 4 semifinalist before losing to Webb City, the eventual state champions. After three weeks of practice — the first of which it embraced Monday — Kearney travels to St. Joseph Central for its season opener on Aug. 21.