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2018 Gridiron: Hannibal Pirates

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Colors: Black and Red

Total Returning Lettermen: 23

2017 Overall Record: 6-5

Head Coach: Mark St Clair

Years at School: 22

Record at School: 176-64

Overall Record: 176-64

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LAST RIDE: PIRATES ENDEAVOR TO CRAFT A SUITABLE FINAL COACHING CHAPTER FOR THE LEGENDARY MARK ST CLAIR

SHIP SHAPE: Let’s just blurt it out and get it over with: 2017 was a really strange year in the rich history of Hannibal Pirate Football. It started with Mark St. Clair’s coaching retirement and then “unretirement” in the span of ten days-time. Months later, the Pirates crafted a season that produced more peaks and valleys than the EKG readout of a Polygraph Test. A thrilling opening night win in Jefferson City to spoil the christening of the Helias Crusaders brand new facility. Followed by a disappointingly listless performance against Quincy Notre Dame a week late. What ensued from that point forward was a seeming weekly pendulum swing of wins and losses that ultimately culminated in a 6-5 overall record and early District ouster at the hands of the Moberly Spartans; a wildly erratic ride incongruent with the legacy of a program defined by its relentless consistency. In its aftermath, Coach St. Clair would use the word “challenging” to describe the experience; a diplomatic way of saying the input effort fell shy of that needed to achieve the desired payoff.

As we turn the page to 2018, I think it fair to ask: was there a lesson learned in all this? Will last season’s disappointments serve as cautionary tale; a clarion call to reestablishing the winning habits and successful standards that have elevated Pirate Football to soaring heights in the last quarter century? Or is Hannibal Football in decline? With Mark St Clair set to retire at season’s end, Pirate Football would seem to arrive here at a very significant crossroads. The future course of this program will be charted almost entirely now by the group of young men who buckle the chinstrap this Fall. It is, by all accounts, an enormously talented crew. But as we saw all too well last season, success isn’t just about raw talent. It’s a constant litmus test on personal resolve. That’s the challenge this Class of Pirate inherits moving into a new seasonand ultimately a new era.

WHERE THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A WAY: With twenty three returning Varsity Lettermen and a dozen holdover starters, Hannibal Football is rich in experienced depth. And that looms as a heck of an asset. To put a finer point on it, from top to bottom, you won’t find an area team that boasts more skill position options. The depth chart at Running Back and Tight End is particularly crowded, which fits the existing narrative of Hannibal under Mark St. Clair being a team that wants to establish the run and make the mainstaple of the attack. In that spirit, many of the pieces that helped create a 240 ground yards per game attack last Fall will reprise their roles here. That established, do not be surprised if there are tweaks here to greater accentuating the potential of the Pirate passing assets in 2018, because they are considerable. Last season, Hannibal averaged nearly 140 yards per game through the air and there is a growing sense that a trend is brewing here.; that the old Play Caller sees value in maximizing Quarterback Gabe Worthington to the fullest extent. That should be an exciting development for fans. Worthington weathered a few early bumps in his Junior Campaign before finding a confidence niche. The 5’10” 180 pounder threw for nearly 1400 yards last Fall, slinging the ball around with both confidence and accuracy. Worthington is both incredibly strong for the position and explosive as a runner. Moreover, he’s got a nice talent for putting the ball on the money even when on the move. He ran for 551 yards to establish himself as a compelling dual-threat quarterback. He’s an intelligent player but more than that I love the rise in his competitive edge we saw as he settled into the position. There’s a tableau here for Gabe to be the very best Quarterback in Tri-State Football this season, in a deep talent pool, given all he can do with the football in his hands and the opportunity afforded him here. Don’t be surprised if he rises to the level of a POY candidate. He’s that good.

Moreover, Worthington benefits from the return of an All-State Caliber target in Will Whitaker, arguably the best athlete on a team full of considerable ones. Will’s impact last year was considerable: 39 receptions for 755 total yards and 10 touchdowns. For everything else in his typical wide receiver arsenal, Whitaker is one of the strongest Wide Receivers in the state. You can’t body him up as Defensive Back because of this and he seemingly wins every 50/50 ball. At 6’1” and almost 190 pounds, he cuts and imposing figure and he’s got terrific hands and body control to match. The Pirates will need to find another quality option to go along with him (Josh Paubel, Preston Bennett, Owen Johnson all loom as candidates) to replace the production lost to Wyatt Waelder’s graduation. That said, the air attack in America’s Hometown will still be plenty potent.

BUILDING A LITTLE MO-MENTUM: The Pirates employed a Running Game by committee in 2017 and both JaQuez McGruder and Dante Reading are back to battle it out and prove they can be Feature Backs in the system. McGruder is a 200 pound combo back who collected 519 yards a year ago. He’s a bit of a pinball-styled runner; not an easy kid to get a hit on and one who isn’t fun to hit when you do. And he’s got tremendous balance. I suspect JaQuez may have some game-breaking ability to him as well. He just needs to process defenses a little quicker in his mind and break more deliberately to daylight; because he left a few bigger ones on the table as a Junior. He certainly has enough burst to start hitting “home runs” if he does start making those reads. Overall, this is just a kid with a lot of tools in the box and he’s only just begun scratching the surface of what he can be. If “Little Mo” gets there, he’s got a chance to be pretty special. Dante Reading is a nice stylistic compliment with his incredible utility as a hard-yard producer between the Tackles. The 220 pound Senior runs like a rampaging bull and he’s a kid who absolutely destroys arm tackles. He gets a head of steam up quickly out of the backfield and is way more explosive than you would expect for a kid of his size. He looked to be a little bit of a straight-line runner last year, but even at that, ended up with close to 470 rushing yards in cameo duty. He’s a potential Red Zone godsend here and the kind of guy you could use to slug away at a Defenses stamina for four quarters to good effect. There’s a lot to like about either of these guys. Having both seems like a real opportunity to ramp things up. There’s some potential depth here as well with Sophomores Daylon Reading and Damien French threatening to play their way into the skill position equation early in their careers as well.

LAWSONAND ORDER: Four of the Pirates six returning Offensive Starters are Offensive Linemen and Tight Ends; a wonderful carry-over tool from an attack that produced 370 total yards and 27 points per game last year. Three Year Starter and Returning All-NCMC Honoree Chase Kirby leads the charge at Guard. He’s a 6’ 230 pounder who plays with get leverage, tenacity and game savvy. The Pirates also return Center Josh Drennon (6’1” 230lbs) and Tackle Braxton Lennox (6’1” 230LBS) as proven two-way protectors. Gabe Brummell saw significant reps last Fall and is a potential slot filler at Guard. Junior Caleb Allen is a good looking 6’3” 245 pound prospect at Tackle who could help solidify things up front for the next two seasons. The Treasure Trove at Tight End is enviable. Lawson Rickey (5’10” 210lbs) is the incumbent here and a good one. But the Pirates also have Gavin Frantz, Alec Mundle and Wrestling Standout Vernell Hawkins vying to get on to the field as well.

THE THRILL OF THE CHASE: Just as is the case on Offense, the Pirate Defense welcomes back a half-dozen starters this year. And if you factor in the return of Free Safety Danny Colborn, who started as Sophomore before missing all of last season due to Shoulder issues, that number actually rises to seven.

Coordinator Chris Nicholas won’t lack for plug/play options in the Secondary, which will look to winnow the 117 yards per game of passing yardage it allowed a year ago. Braden Schlueter, Kadin Morgan, and the aforementioned Danny Colborn form a compelling stable of Safety talent. Owen Johnson and Preston Bennett return to man the Cornerback spots. And the Pirates have both Alec Mundle and Will Whitaker in play as talented athletes who could potentially swing between Defensive Back or Linebacker as needed. There’s unparalleled experience here and some tremendously multiple athletes in play. On paper, this may be the deepest talent positional talent pool in our region.

The returns of Chase Kirby and Bradley McCullum (6’1” 225lbs) should cement the Defensive Line into a source of strength here as well, even in the absence of All-Everything Defensive End Evan Allen. It still remains a high-motor/uncommonly mobile group has the ability to improve on a rushing defense that surrendered 160 ground yards and 22 points per game a year ago. Granted, there’s not a ton of size here but Kirby is a two gap stopper with the ability get into an offensive backfield quickly. McCullum is undersold; a very steady and clinical player who deserves more credit for his consistent work fighting off Offensive Linemen. Gavin Frantz, Gabe Brummell and Vernell Hawkins fit the athletic narrative here in effort to ramp up forward pressure and keep the Linebackers roaming free.

THE MIDDLE: The X-factor that has separated the good Hannibal Defenses from the great has long been Linebacker play. And speaking plainly, the Pirates ran uncommonly hot and cold there last season. There’s a screaming opportunity for improvement and Chris Nicholas needs a Cornerstone kid to emerge here as the cornerstone of this group. It could be returning starter and chase down wizard Jordan Schafer. It could be Dante Reading and his straight-out-of-Central Casting run-stuffing Middle Linebacker body. Junior Hunter Gibbons is someone the Coaching Staff is high on. Ditto again for Alec Mundle. And honestly, Will Whitaker’s relative strengths would seem an ideal fit for the job duties here. This will be a fun positional evolution to keep tabs on this Summer. And how it pans out I think ultimately sets the tone for the Pirates Defensive improvement.

THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: Yes, he’s coached for 32 years and Mark St. Clair has earned the right to go out on his terms. But it’s still going to be incredibly weird covering Hannibal Football going forward and not seeing him on the sidelines moving forward. I get that time marches on but this fading away of the original vanguard of coaches in our area over the last few seasons with Bill Connell, Kelly Sears, and Erle Bennett has been more than a little sobering. A reminder that regardless of how good we may be at our chosen profession in this world, we only get a finite amount of time to do that very thing. In that respect, I sentimentally would like to see Mark go out on a very high note. And the capability for this team to create that kind of Final Chapter here is there; depending how badly these kids want it. I’ve heard buzz that maybe last year’s struggles were a wakeup call. But there’s all been some scuttlebutt that maybe the off-season price of success isn’t being paid as universally by the roster as it needs to be. There is no faking football so we will no pretty quickly where the Pirates authenticity lies; especially with a Capital City Doubleheader to kick things off against traditional rival Helias and now the national powerhouse Jefferson City Jays. That’s a big bite. And all the natural gifts in the world aren’t going to tilt the field in the Pirates favor unless every single kid in the two-deep is locked in an operating at 100%. It’s a simple matter of program ownership and no one can make it happen except the kids themselves. Assuming the best of the Pirates, I would allow on paper for as many as seven regular season wins. That’s ambitious given the strength of schedule Hannibal plays. But I do think this team has a chance to be so unique and diverse offensively that even the Columbia Battles and Jeff Cities of the world are going to be taxed in trying to keep the firepower hemmed in. If the Defense gels, it might be even better than that. It’s also a very winnable District for a team with this kind of talent, so long as it is locked in. So fingers crossed here and lets hope to see a Hollywood Ending to what has been an amazing Football tenure for the Hall of Fame Coach and the program he put back on the map.

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