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Experience, Talent Should Put 2020 Bulldogs on Upward Trajectory

Paul Sturm
psturm@chillicothenews.com
Then-junior Garrett Starlin gains yardage for the Brookfield Bulldogs against the Highland Cougars during one of BHS' two 2019 victories. He is one of more than a dozen returning 2020 Bulldogs who has some or extensive starting experience, a key factor in heightened expectations for success for the team this fall. Brookfield is to begin its new season at Trenton Friday.

By PAUL STURM, Special to the Leader

BROOKFIELD — Brighter days – or more appropriately, Friday nights – seem to be on the 2020 horizon for the Brookfield High School football Bulldogs after some recent struggles.

Fourth-year head coach Scott Stevens has a healthy number of returning 2019 starters and some players who simply are healthy again, prompting faith that the blue-and-white and their faithful will have something more than a “Bell Game” win to celebrate this fall.

Of course, like everyone, Brookfield’s expectations are tempered and overshadowed to a degree by the “elephant in the room” – the potential for disruption of the schedule by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if this region’s relatively-low incidence of the virus continues, what happens elsewhere still can sidetrack things – for a week or maybe for the season.

Marceline’s Tigers, also anticipated to be very good in 2019, also dropped only one regular-season contest – albeit a stinging one to in-county rival Brookfield in the “Bell Game” in week three – before posting four postseason triumphs to reach the 11-man Class 1 state semifinals as part of a 12-2 campaign.

The 2020 season – now on the verge of starting, despite the uncertainties and challenges triggered by COVID-19 – will offer the opportunity for those – like Brookfield – dissatisfied with last year to advance their cause.

After an uncharacteristic downturn in their gridiron fortunes the last several years, the Bulldogs look like a good bet to resume posting wins with regularity in 2020.

“We bring back a large number of starters from both sides of the ball, as well as some key guys from injury,” coach Stevens comments on the approaching campaign.

Led by now-graduated all-district defensive end and second-team all-Clarence Cannon Conference offensive lineman Jeremy Williams and 3-years starting lineman Lane Thudium, the Bulldogs went 2-8 last year, albeit with the saving grace of the 14-7 “Bell Game” win over Marceline at Burlington Field.

They stand 5-25 the past three seasons. Whether they can double that Stevens-led wins total in only a single season is not guaranteed, but the veteran bent of the roster certainly enhances the chances.

A handful of players with starting experience on the offensive line are back in blue and white, including seniors Jacob Jackman (5’8”, 220 pounds), Nathan Sharp (5’11”, 245), and and juniors Trent Polley (6’1”, 180), Shane Owens (6’6”, 220) and Peyton Armstrong (5’10”, 240). In addition, Dawson Baker (6’1”, 190, sr.), who started in the backfield in 2019, has been moved to the “O” line.

Trace Alexander (5’11”, 215, sr.), an honorable-mention all-Clarence Cannon Conference choice last year, again will be the fullback and, with the veteran line in front of him, could have a big year. Gabe Rodriguez (5’7”, 175, sr.) will be at running back. In addition, Jadan Abongo (5’9”, 160, jr.) should get some significant carries after starting some last fall.

Senior Derek Liebhart (5’11”, 170) will take over the full-time quarterbacking duties, with Carson Beckman (6’, 165, sr.) shifting full-time to wide receiver, joining Garrett Starlin (5’10”, 180, sr.) there.

On defense, linemen with starting experience include Jackman, Armstrong, and Baker, while all-CCC second-team pick Alexander and Rodriguez are back at linebacker. In the secondary will be returnees Tyler Polley (6’11”, 160, sr.), Beckman, Starlin and Abongo.

In addition to Liebhart, who’ll see some time at outside linebacker on defense, projected new starters include Quinn Gladbach (5’9”, 160) and Hunter Sanders (6’, 205) on either line, Donavan Parn (5’8”, 150) at fullback and/or linebacker, and Nathan Howerton (6’3”, 175) at receiver and defensive end. Each of them is a senior this year.

Junior Tommy Gunn (5’10”, 190) is another returning letterman who could help out at fullback or linebacker.

Other potential contributors, the head coach notes, include Jaden Varner (5’9”, 225, sr.) and Coner Simons (6’2”, 180, soph.) on the lines, Jase Thurlo (6’11”, 180, jr.) at receiver or defensive end, and Kadan Wilson (5’10”, 175, jr.) at fullback or linebacker.

“These guys,” Stevens says of the full approximately 40-players roster, “have been working hard and are ready to get rolling.”

Schedule-wise, the Bulldogs this year will have their two non-conference games right off the bat, visiting Trenton Aug. 28 and then trying to defend “the bell” at Marceline Sept. 4.

The traditionally-rugged Clarence Cannon slate will start with the Sept. 11 home opener against defending champion Centralia, which was perfect in the loop last year to nose out Clark County. The perennially-potent Panthers project to be a very stern test for the Bulldogs that early in the season, particularly when considering that will be the week after the “Bell” clash at Marceline.

After being 1-6 in the league last year, with only Ewing: Highland below it, Brookfield – if improved, as anticipated – realistically could initially target regaining a spot in the top half of the CCC final standings as a goal, hoping to have the opportunity to readjust their sights upward, if they get out of the gate strong.

While still awaiting the district assignments, but assuming there’s no way BHS is anything other than still a Class 2 team, postseason aims likewise would figure to start with a top-4 rating in whatever district in which the Bulldogs land and, if that’s the case, at least one home playoffs game.

Trying to handicap the postseason this soon in this hopefully-unique year is pure guesswork, since virtually everything – including even if there will be a postseason and which schools/teams might or might not have had their seasons terminated by the pandemic – is very uncertain. Perhaps more literally than any prior season, 2020 could be the year for the old coaching adage about “taking them one game at a time” is at its truest.

Brookfield’s schedule: (Clarence Cannon Conference games asterisked) 8/28 @ Trenton; 9/4 @ Marceline; 9/11 Centralia*; 9/18 Palmyra*; 9/25 @ Macon*; 10/2 @ Monroe City*; 10/9 Clark County*; 10/16 @ Ewing: Highland*; 10/23 South Shelby*