The Hannibal High School football team returns to the gridiron Friday night when the Pirates open their season hosting Quincy Notre Dame at Porter Stadium. Because of the recent heat wave, kickoff has been pushed back to 8 p.m.
This will be the fourth consecutive season the Pirates have opened with the Raiders.
"It has been perfect quite honestly," Hannibal coach Mark St Clair said. "To have a game against a local school, a good football school, and a school that runs a class program. Bill runs a great program and it took us a while to get this set up."
While most of the Pirates recent season openers have been one home and one away game with other schools, this series has been longer.
"We worked a long time to get this game," St Clair said. "It took many, many years to get this set up to have (QND) agree to play us."
After opening the season with a 36-32 loss in 2010 and a 20-14 loss in 2011, Hannibal finally beat QND (33-23) to open the season in 2012.
"This has been a tremendous first game for us," St Clair said. "When you play somebody good your first game, it makes you a better football team. If you make mistakes, they are going to make you know you are making mistakes."
Overall the Pirates have won 13 of the 23 games they have played against Quincy Notre Dame.
"Anytime you have got good programs, good teams playing, it is going to be well matched," St Clair said. "That is really what you should have the first game. These division one colleges and they're playing lower level teams and all that and that might work for them, but at the high school level, for your first game, I think the first week you really need somebody that is going to exploit your weaknesses and make your kids better. The most improvement you are going to see from a football team is from week one to week two."
There will be a new field general for the Pirates this year as Lijah Harrison will be replacing two-year starter Dalton Powell, who graduated following last season. However, Harrison will not be the only one taking the snaps for the Pirates. Austin Kirby and Austin Lewton will also see time under center.
"Right now Lijah Harrison is going to be the starter," St Clair said. "Austin Kirby will be getting some reps there and we are very comfortable with either one of them. We also have Austin Lewton under center too. We are very confident that we have quarterbacks that we can fill in there. We like where we are at, we just need a game to show us what we need to improve on."
Page 2 of 2 - But, even though there is a new quarterback, the Pirates bring back their leading rusher. Senior Mitch Nichols rushed for 1,191 yards and 16 touchdowns as well as catching 15 passes for 160 yards and two more touchdowns.
"Anybody would like to have a Mitchell Nichols back," St Clair said. "But, by no means are we going to be a one back system. We have other guys who can carry the ball, but Mitch is the leader of our football team. He does a lot of things and he does (them) well. He is a focused kid who cares about his teammates and is going to do whatever it takes. It doesn't matter if it is offense, defense or special teams to help us succeed."
Among the other options Hannibal has to help carry the ball this year are Wyatt King, Kyle Messer, and Colton Gottman.
One year ago the Pirates had a stingy defense, limiting opposing offenses to low scores and yardage. Hannibal lost some important pieces of that defense to graduation, but St Clair isn't too worried.
"Defensively we had several people to replace off of a really good defensive squad," St Clair said. "Anytime you lose a three-time All-State kid like Caleb Bieniek, it is going to hit you a little bit. We had some other very good defensive players that (graduated). It is awful hard to start off and play at a high level when you lose those kids with that type of experience. But, our kids have responded. They have had a good summer and a good preseason. They just need a game to find out what we are doing right and what we need to correct."