After a promising start to the head coaching career of Kris Stephens at Belleville East three years ago, wins on the football field have been hard to come by for the Lancers.
Following a 6-4 season that included a playoff berth in 2015, East slipped to 1-8 the following season and 2-7 overall with a disappointing 2-5 record in the Southwestern Conference last year.
The grind doesn’t stop, though. Not for the players or the coaches.
“I’ll give the kids credit and the staff as well. Nobody is hanging their heads. Nobody is giving up. They are working extremely hard. We haven’t had the success we would like in the last couple of years and we need to do what we can to get better,’’ Stephens said. “But with the conference that we’re in and the schedule that we play, we could be twice as good and still be 4-5 or 5-4.
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“But it is what it is and we have to play the schedule that we’ve got. We know its going to be a grind and want to continue to improve each week as the season goes on.’’
Hampered by turnovers a year ago, the Lancers return senior quarterback Kienen Waller to lead an athletic offense. The undersized Waller (5-foot-9, 175), an all-area second team pick last year, was 175 of 328 for 1,983 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is one of just six returning starters.
The Lancers early season schedule is brutal. After opening its season at Chaminade on Aug. 24, East will host Class 4A state title contender Highland in Week 2, then Quincy in Week 3. A road game at East St. Louis opens the Southwestern Conference season on Sept. 14.
“We know that from the outside looking in that it doesn’t look great. But we also know the hard work that we’re putting in,’’ Stephens said. “We also know that we’re headed down the right path. We just need to put a little more into it to get over that hump.”
The offense will be led by Waller, who returns as the starting quarterback for a third straight year.
“Kienen looks good. He’s had a very good summer and he’s throwing the football well,’’ Stephens said. “He’s working with a whole new group of receivers but things have improved as we’ve gone along here.
“But other than Kienen and two offensive linemen, the rest of the starters will be in their first year.’’
Seniors Isaiah Flager-Hearan and Michael Muhammad are the offensive linemen returning with experience while senior Kaidin Russo is one of three who will start up for the first time.
Russo, Muhammad and Flager-Hearan all have good size and will be leading the way for running backs Jeremy Schooler, Nolan Wellinghoff and Michael Foster.
“Wellinghoff has been around. He’s played a little fullback for us and a little linebacker. He’s more of a fullback type whereas Schooler is a kid we’re excited about. He’s very explosive and was one of the fastest freshmen in the state last year,’’ Stephens said. “Foster’s a kid that can hit a hole quickly. He’s one of the fastest kids we’ve got.’’
Sophomores Jaylen Ford and Jaiden Harris-Hemphill are among the many players the Lancers coaching staff are looking to be key players at wide receiver, while seniors Ke’Vaughn Gaines and Khalifah Muhmmad will see time at split end.
Muhammad is a transfer from Althoff.
On defense, Rakweon Ramsey and Nick Cole will lead the way on the line, while senior Dion Smith will see playing time at defensive tackle.
Senior Xavier Medina could be one of the best linebackers against the run in the Southwestern Conference and will lead an otherwise untested group of athletes there while junior Yohance Flager will be a key in the defensive backfield for the Lancers.
Sophomore Bryson Ivy and junior Sebastion Ivory-Greer could be a top duo at safety for the Lancers.
“We’re inexperienced, but we’re more athletic. We’re hoping that athleticism keeps us in some things,’’ Stephens said.
“Like I said, our goals are to improve from week to week. We want to see our kids fight, and to battle to improve. And we want to make the playoffs. We want to get to that five mark because we know that with our schedule that five wins will get us in.’’