HANNIBAL - Beginning his 10th season at the helm of his alma mater, Mike Flannery felt like he was watching tapes of his 2007 and 2008 River Pilots' squads.
He actually had to pinch himself because the qualities are eerily similar.
"This is one of the most difficult teams I've had in terms of being able to single out players because they're all great kids and have great work ethics," Flannery said. "This team is a mirror of our 2007 and 2008 teams in terms of their work ethics."
The Pilots appear primed to do big things as a 10-player senior class, which includes five three-year lettermen, leads the way.
"As a group, I can't ask for any more from these seniors as a coach," Flannery said. "There's no off-field problems or on-field problems and that's all you can ask for. Plus, we're well ahead in terms of putting things in and the kids really understand what we're trying to do because so many of them have played so much."
The Pilots seniors took lumps early in their careers, finishing 2-8 as freshmen and 1-9 as sophomores.
"I've got my eye on every group coming up, but I knew this team, by the time they were seniors would be fine because they've played so much," Flannery said. "Any time you're playing sophomores, you might be getting beat at times, but you're gaining valuable experience."
Despite being snake-bitten in several games, the Pilots still put together a 6-4 campaign and were in the thick of the Region 23 playoff chase up until the final week.
"As a coach, you have nightmares on how you lost some of those games, but as a group, we can't look at it," Flannery said. "I feel we were better than a lot of teams we didn't get to play, but that's how it falls. This year, we need to win football games and win football games against teams that are going to have a good record at the end of the season or else we'll find ourselves on the outside looking in again."
The Pilots will have a chance to make amends for things as they'll line up against the identical 10 opponents, including Friday's opener against Fort Frye.
While they'll play the same 10 teams, River is without use of Flannery Field in Hannibal because of the on-going construction project at the school. Last month, it was formally announced the Pilots would move their operation for home games to Alumni Field in New Martinsville.
"No one is more disappointed about not playing (at Flannery Field) than me," Flannery said. "I am disappointed for the seniors, but all of the people have to do is get in the car and come down here and see what it looks it. Having said that, I am grateful that Magnolia has opened up everything for us."
Flannery's biggest concern has nothing to do with where the Pilots will or won't be playing their home games.
"We have to stay healthy," Flannery said. "Depth is a real concern because we don't have any depth at all in any position. After our No. 1 players, it drops off to young kids and when you're playing young kids, you've got problems."
Offensively, Flannery has never been shy about opening up the playbook a bit and this will be no different. He wants no part of being labeled as a running or passing team.
"We feel we can do both very well," Flannery said. "Flexibility is always good and I feel that's always a character of our football team because we want to be multiple, use different looks and be good at everything."
The Pilots may employ two quarterbacks this season and both are seniors.
Cody Caldwell (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) saw much of the action last season. He threw for almost 700 yards and three touchdowns.
The other Pilot expected to see time is Logan Lucas (5-11, 145), who passed for almost 300 yards and a score in spot duty last season.
"We feel we're real strong at quarterback," Flannery said. "If one goes down, the other can step right in and that's the good assurance you have with two quarterbacks, who you know can do the job. Both understand what we're trying to do, but Cody is the veteran. It's his job to lead us on the field."
The only other quarterback listed on the roster is freshman Joey Flannery (6-1, 159), who is the son of the head coach.
Flannery has some flexibility between his running backs and receivers since they're basically interchangeable for the most part.
Senior Nick Asturi (5-9, 198) is penciled in as the fullback, while senior Jonathan Stewart (5-10, 170) and junior Jordan Sapp (5-10, 154) are the speed options in the backfield. Junior Bryce Cross (5-11, 170) can step in and sub for either player.
Junior Bailey Reusser (5-8, 145), sophomores Mason Indermuhle (5-10, 160) Cole Isaly (5-2, 112), Dylan Ice (5-7, 141) and Loren Thomas (5-6, 127) are in the mix. Providing depth is freshman Zac Smith (5-10, 165).
On the perimeter, senior Kam Brown (6-0, 150) will be one of the go-to players for the Pilots. Senior Dallas Necessary (6-1, 162) gets the call on the other side. Senior Garth Richter (5-10, 172) is a "utility" player for the Pilots. He'll see time at tight end and receiver. He'll be backed by junior Duane Necessary (5-11, 133).
Other receivers vying for time include junior Freddie Mundt (6-0, 163), sophomore Brok Cross (6-0, 167), freshmen Craig Hupp (6-0, 150), A.C. Whipkey (5-8, 127) and C.J. Honeycutt (5-8, 138).
"We've got athletes on the outside," Flannery said. "When we go four or five wide, we've got six or seven kids who can step in there. All of these kids understand the offense, so who do I think will stand out? I think they'll all stand out. All of them bring something different to the table and it'll be up to the teams we play to figure out what that is."
The offensive line returns just two starters, but they're both talented young men.
Senior Evan Eggleston (6-4, 220) is embarking on his fourth season as a starter and earned All-Ohio accolades a season ago. He'll be at a tackle.
Flannery glowed about junior Brett Rosen (5-8, 205) and the offseason he's put in to prepare himself for the upcoming campaign.
"I wouldn't trade Brett Rosen for anyone," Flannery said. "Evan got the honors and now he's got a lot to live up to because he's got the mark on him. He's got a lot of expectations to live up to what he did last year."
Senior Thomas Tharp (5-10, 170) is making the shift from tight end to center this season.
Juniors Brandon Reusser (5-9, 171) and Dakota Dunn (6-0, 173) are set to take over the guard jobs.
Another lineman making a serious push at quality action is senior J.D. Dotson (6-3, 200). Sophomore Matt Gauding (6-4, 185) is a versatile lineman who can fill in basically at any of the five spots.
Other linemen supplying depth are: sophomores Aaron Ingram (5-6, 205), Andy Williamson (6-0, 236), freshmen Cheyenne Runyan (5-9, 172), Dustin Schmidt (5-6, 234) and Tyson Felton (5-6, 157).
"As is the case for most teams, the line will be the biggest key to our success," Flannery said.
River's kicking game should on solid footing thanks to sophomore Colton Wright (6-0, 144), who will handle the PATs, kickoffs and punting.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Pilots return nine starters. Flannery believes the biggest boost is having veteran assistant Tim Frye back on the staff as the defensive coordinator.
"Having Coach Frye back and nine starters back make me sleep well at night," Flannery said. "We realize that defense wins football games and we have some great tacklers, who can all run and get to the football, back. I think we're good at all levels (defensively)."
Eggleston and Rosen return as the defensive tackles. Dotson is the set at one defensive end, while the other side has been a battle between Dunn, Brandon Reusser and Tharp.
Asturi is back at one of the linebackers along with Sapp and Stewart.
The secondary is an area of depth for the Pilots. Bryce Cross, Brown, Richter, Caldwell, Lucas, Dallas Necessary are all in the mix.
"As far as our second and third levels go for our defense, we're really deep," Flannery said. "The summer work habits of these kids have been tremendous. The kids know who put the time in and I don't need to single anyone out because those kids will shine at the end of the season."
Along with Frye, Flannery is being assisted at the varsity level by Tim Tisher, Eric Rosen, athletic director Tom Tisher, Chris Wisvari, Joey Asturi, Tom Schuler, Dean Caldwell and Dave Wright.
Brent Isaly and Dugan Dietz are handling the Pilots' junior high program.
Graduation losses included: Logan Postle, Austin McConn, Landon Baker, Rafael Delgado, Jeff Meredith, Devon Knowlton and Zach Caretti.