COLUMBUS —After a lengthy stint on the Columbus staff as an assistant, Blake Burns will now get his shot to take over the Titan program as head coach.
Burns spent more than a decade as an assistant under former head coach Dan Grundy and is now in his 16th season overall as a coach. Grundy was the head coach for the Titans the past 11 years.
Of course, Burns has some work to do as he tries to regain that winning attitude in the program. The Titans are coming off their worst season in quite some time, finishing with a 1-8 overall record. That ended a stretch of five straight winning seasons and 11 straight years in the postseason, including a trip to the Class 4A-Division II state championship game in 2014.
“The biggest change has to be in how we approach daily and weekly preparation,” Burns said. “We have to practice with focus, effort and intensity to improve daily. We also have to be able to hold one another accountable to standards and expectations within our team.”
Although there were struggles on the field last season, the Titans did pick up some valuable experience. This year, they will return several starters and lettermen from that squad.
Leading the way are four players that earned some form of All-CNC recognition a year ago, including Second Team offensive lineman senior Bryce Davis, who will also be on the defensive line; Second Team linebacker sophomore Gabe Martin, who is also a running back; Honorable Mention linebacker senior Grayson Walden, who is also a running back; and Honorable Mention wide receiver senior Clay Saporito, who also plays defensive back.
Three other starters return to the lineup, including senior quarterback/defensive back Patrick Cassidy, senior defensive back/wide receiver Kaden Crain and senior offensive/defensive lineman Alex Bole. Cassidy passed for 616 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.
In addition to those starters, the Titans have several other returning players that should contribute this season — seniors Will Eddington and Alec Damrill, junior Caleb Murillo and sophomore Kody Schalk all on the offensive and defensive line; sophomore Trent Smith at running back and linebacker; sophomore Jaxson Haraughty at quarterback and defensive back; junior Silas Stone at offensive line and linebacker; junior Raef Gonzalez at wide receiver and defensive line; and senior Matt Robnett and junior Lynn Shallenberger at wide receiver and defensive back.
“The biggest takeaway we can find from last season is that we had a lot of players get varsity football experience, which we hope will translate to more consistency and success moving forward,” Burns said. “What we hopefully learned from last season is that we have to bring energy and focus each and every day and that we have to become better leaders on and off the field.”
To improve on last year’s record, Columbus must once again go through a challenging schedule, starting with its Sept. 6 opener at Colgan. That will be followed by back-to-back home games with Coffeyville on Sept. 13 and Girard Sept. 20. Class 3A-District 1 action gets started on Sept. 27 when the Titans visit Caney Valley. They remain on the road one week later at Baxter Springs before consecutive home games with Parsons on Oct. 11 and Galena Oct. 18. The regular season concludes on Oct. 25 at Frontenac.
Columbus finished last season with a 1-4 district mark, which put the Titans outside of the playoffs with a fifth-place finish in the district. The top four teams from each district advance to the Class 3A postseason.
“Our expectation will be to improve each and every week and be a team that will play with great execution and effort,” Burns said.