By NICK McQUEEN
Ness City High School football coach Chris Bamberger doesn't spend too much time looking at the schedule his Eagles will face in 2014.
He really doesn't have to. One glance tells him his Eagles have to be ready to go each week if they hope to make it back to the playoffs in the coach's sixth season -- a feat the club narrowly missed in 2013.
"I've been pleased with the kids' attitude," said Bamberger, who guided the Eagles to an undefeated championship two seasons ago in Eight-Man Division I, the high point so far in the program's resurgence. "We've been making mistakes, but we haven't been making a lot of the same mistakes over.
"That's showing the kids are taking coaching and paying attention."
The Eagles followed up the 2012 title with a 5-4 showing last season after graduating a big, talented senior class.
This year's senior class is large once again, and Bamberger hopes the experience they gained as juniors -- while limited by injuries -- pays off as the season progresses through a difficult slate. The district schedule includes three playoff teams from a season ago (Spearville, Division I runner-up Jetmore-Hodgeman County and Division II qualifier Dighton), and an improved Montezuma-South Gray team.
Ness City has nine seniors on the roster, including its starting backfield, a tight end, and three linemen. Several of those players, though, had to miss time in their junior seasons due to injury.
"We're kind of mixed," Bamberger said. "Some of these guys had some fairly serious injuries through the season, so some of them didn't get to play a lot, or as much as they hoped.
"But there are some guys that played a lot as juniors, so we're kind of mixed with a senior-laden team."
The Eagles' quick senior trio of quarterback Tanner McMillen, running back Pedro Flores and running back Jacob Hoss should provide the team with the leadership -- and punch it needs -- if they can stay healthy.
"(McMillen) has gained a lot of confidence," Bamberger said. "He started to figure things out (last season), but still tended to make some mistakes. We're hoping now as s senior, he'll have a better grasp of things, and understand certain situations a little bit better.
"He seems to be doing that," Bamberger added. "It's early, it's practice, so probably a lot to learn yet."
McMillen and Flores both had to miss time last season, along with senior linemen Dakota Stephen and Devon McInnis. The Eagles' size up front though, barring any injuries, could prove an advantage.
"We're going to be big up front, but in the backfield, we'll be small and quick," Bamberger said. "Our speed and quickness in the backfield should be beneficial for us. We'll do what we can to try and get them the ball in space, and let them make plays."
Despite missing time, Flores managed to rush for 400 yards on 76 carries, while Hoss added 322 yards on 59 touches.
McMillen, though, was the fuel for the offense, despite being limited by injury. He completed 59 of 116 passes for 752 yards and 13 scores. He added 595 rushing yards and 10 TDs.
Bamberger, said, though the biggest key to make it back to the playoffs, is to get better each week -- and stay healthy against their schedule.
"It just doesn't get easy as the season goes. There are just a lot of quality football teams out here," Bamberger said. "There are a lot of teams that have tough schedules this year. You just can't really take a week off, especially when we get to districts."