Aug. 24—CARL JUNCTION, Mo. — The Carl Junction Bulldogs welcome a new coach for the 2023 season, but not an unfamiliar one.
Coach Todd Hafner is returning to lead the Bulldogs after coaching William Penn University to a 119-86 record in 19 years at the school. Prior to that, Hafner coached at Carl Junction from 1997 to 2000 and compiled a 14-26 record.
Hafner said he is enjoying the transition back to coaching high school players.
"I'm just excited to be back," Hafner said. " It's really been a breath of fresh air for me to see these kids be excited about playing football. At the college level, you are giving the guys scholarships, so they look at it a little bit like a job, but these kids have been having fun, and it's refreshing to see their work ethic and see how badly they really want success."
Hafner will lean on a talented staff of assistants to try to improve on Carl Junction's 4-7 finish last year.
"My staff is fantastic," Hafner said. "They are really, really good. They've welcomed me and they have helped me from day one."
Hafner said there were a lot of things coming from the college level back to the high school level that he had forgotten or that had changed, and anytime he had a question, his assistants were always willing to help.
"There were times in the spring when I wasn't able to be here, and I never had to worry about anything getting taken care of," Hafner said. "That has carried over to team camp and summer workouts. They've all been here every single day, and I can't say enough great things about them as people and what they are doing for these kids. What they have done to help me has been off the charts."
Hafner's assistant coaches this year are Brenden Grueber, Adam Merrell, Greg Warlop, Chase Johnston, Mason Cook, Luke Maters and Tim Gubera.
Hafner said he has about 75 to 80 kids out for the team this year, including 16 seniors.
"We'd like that to be about 100," Hafner said. "But the kids that are in it are here every single day. We've had weights Monday through Thursday since June and other than a couple of vacations or church camps, our kids haven't missed anything, so we've been really happy with that. It's been really good."
Playing in a conference composed of a lot of Class 5 and 6 teams presents a challenge for the Class 4 Bulldogs, something for which Hafner is well aware.
"I think the biggest thing that is a struggle for us in the COC is depth," Hafner said. "Other teams are able to two-platoon and do some different things, so we just have to figure out ways to get our kids rest somehow. We know that they can't play a full game on both sides of the ball and expect them to be 100% at the end of the game, so we have to do our best to figure out how we can get them out of the game sometimes and give them a breather. Sometimes that's the biggest challenge."
Hafner said the ultimate goal for Carl Junction would be to win the COC.
"For us, that's a realistic goal," Hafner said. "But we would have to play at a very high level every week and we'd have to win games at the end. We know we're not going to blow people out or anything like that. Let's be honest, the conference is probably one of the best in the state."
Hafner hopes the tough COC schedule will prepare the Bulldogs for district play at the end of the season.
"The things we talk to our kids about is play hard, be tough and compete — compete your guts out," Hafner said. "That sets us up for when we start district play. If we've played hard and played tough and we've competed, all that tough competition is going to make us better when we play teams that don't get to two-platoon just like we can't. It gives us an opportunity at the end of the season — if we are healthy — to be able to compete and have a chance to win our district."
Last year, Carl Junction won its first district game 42-13 over Grandview, but fell 33-6 to Center in the second round.
Hafner will lean on four key seniors this year for leadership.
"We have a pretty good group of seniors that have all played," Hafner said. "Your starting quarterback is where everyone kind of likes to start, and Dex Merrell was the starter last year and started part of the time as a sophomore. He's had a good summer and gives us a quiet leadership — he's a leader by example, for sure. He and Johnny Starks (running back and line backer) are not the most vocal kids. They can be vocal, but when they say something, listen, because whatever is coming is important and it's going to be vital to our success."
Hafner said Starks also has had a great summer. He was a two-way all-conference and all-district player for Carl Junction last year, and Hafner said he will play a big role on this year on both sides of the ball.
Hafner said offensive and defensive lineman Aiden Beachner, who has battled some injuries, is finally healthy. He said the 6-foot-4 240-pound Beachner should have some scholarship opportunities at the next level.
Joining Beachner up front will be fellow senior Bryce Battaglia, who Hafner said is a hard worker that had a very productive summer.
Hafner said senior Bentley Rowden will play both ways, starting at tight end and line backer. Rowden was a first-team All-District pick last year.
"Those kids will probably be the heart and soul of what we are doing," Hafner said. "Some of our younger kids that have stepped up are junior Tony Stewart, who will be a running back for us, and on our offensive line we are looking at Blake Starks, a sophomore who will probably start for us at either offensive or defensive tackle."
Other promising players for Hafner include wide receiver Jet Mills and Deacon Endicott.
"Deacon Endicott, a really good baseball player, is going to play football this year for the first time in a while, so we're excited about that," Hafner said.
Hafner said senior Eli Zavala is looking promising as a defensive end for Carl Junction.
"He's a very athletic type of defensive end," Hafner said.
A key game comes on Sept. 22 in a homecoming game against Branson, when Hafner will face his brother, Branson coach Aaron Hafner.
Aug. 25: vs. Ozark
Sept. 1: at Webb City
Sept. 8: vs. Neosho
Sept. 15: at Carthage
Sept. 22: vs. Branson
Sept. 29: at Nixa
Oct. 6: vs. Joplin
Oct. 13: at Willard
Oct. 20: vs. Republic