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Defending champion Eagles have entirely new roster -- almost

By NICK McQUEEN

nmcqueen@dailynews.net

En route to an undefeated Eight-Man Division I state championship, the Ness City High School football team dominated every team it faced in 2012.

The Eagles outscored opponents 639-70, and ended most games at least by the end of the third quarter, if not by halftime via the mercy rule.

There was one team, however, the Eagles never got the better of -- their scout team. Not officially, that is.

In order to get better, the Ness City juggernaut, which graduated all but one starter, had to work against someone every day in practice.

That's the group that will get to take their turn in the spotlight when the Eagles open their title-defending season Friday against Kinsley.

"I have been super-pleased with the mentality of the team," fourth-year Eagle coach Chris Bamberger said. "They know we've got a lot of work to do, but they've come to practice ready for that mentally."

The new Eagles roster boasts 10 seniors, but most rarely saw the field behind an elite group that included names like Dalton Gantz, Garrett Flax, Koltyn Ratliff and Blake McVicker, along with four other graduates. But, each day in practice, this No. 2 group worked against what turned out to be the best team in the state -- and arguably one of the most dominant in eight-man history.

"There were a lot of spots to fill, really some questions about the team," said senior Trevor Hawkins, the player with the most returning experience of the 10 seniors on this year's team. "We have a lot to prove, but I think we can do it.

"It's going to be tougher than last year, but it's something we're capable of."

The Eagles lost nearly all of their offense with Gantz, Ratliff and Flax, but do return junior running back Pedro Flores, who saw some time last year late in games (or first halves) when the games were out of reach. While Gantz and Flax rumbled for more than 2300 yards combined and 39 scores, Flores rushed for 426 in cleanup duty with six touchdowns.

"We're asking more of him back there," Bamberger said. "And he'll get more carries this year."

Junior Tanner McMillen takes the reigns at quarterback to replace Ratliff. McMillen played in five games, completing 3 of 7 passes for 37 yards and a score -- all late in games.

In addition, Bamberger said senior Dalton Garrison, junior Jacob Hoss and senior Morgan Flax will see some time in the run game.

The coach said at any point during the season, these guys could have stepped into roles on the field, and often did due to injuries. It just wasn't extensive time.

"From a self-confidence aspect they should know they got to go toe-to-toe with those guys every day in practice," Bamberger said. "That doesn't hurt when you're thinking 'What are we going to be capable of?' "  

The biggest question lies on defense, where Bamberger wasn't quite sure in preseason who would step into roles to replace guys like McVicker, the HDN Defensive Player of the Year who racked up 113 tackles (10 for loss) and 9.5 sacks.

"It's tough to say right now," Bamberger said. "I have my eye on a few kids we expect to go up and be playmakers."

Hawkins was an end and a big target last season for Ratliff. He caught a team-high 27 passes for 263 yards and a team-best seven TDs. He'll again be out on the end, but could do some shifting as well.

"The roles have been filled, and we've been doing a good job so far," Hawkins said.

Bamberger said his Eagles learned a great deal by watching the group in front of them mature into a state-title team, and not just on the field.

"It's not all just X's and O's," said Bamberger, who is 26-7 in his previous three seasons.

"They've leraned a lot of things about how to conduct themselves in practice and how to conduct themselves in school.

"And how to just bring a good attitude. They're hungry to learn and they're hungry to get better."

The Eagles again play in a tough district that includes last season's district runner-up Hoxie and Atwood-Rawlins County, a Buffalo team that returns every single player from a team that started 7-0 before its loss to Ness City.