BRANFORD — After their heart-breaking overtime playoff loss to Hilliard, it didn’t take the Buccaneers long to show Branford coach Tim Clark the kind of response he was hoping for.

“The following week they attacked the weight room,” Clark said after the Bucs’ season ended 34-33 in the first round of the Class 1A postseason Nov. 8. “It’s been encouraging.”

Clark, who teaches the weightlifting class that will run throughout the rest of the school year, said he called a team meeting to review the playoff game film and to discuss the offseason program, and that preparing for the 2020 season has already begun.

“I want them to see that every rep matters. And for the last couple weeks, since the season ended, they have been killing it in the weight room. Since the season ended there are guys that are already getting new maxes,” he said, adding that attention to detail will make a difference in the handful of plays that can make a difference between a 6-4 team and a 9-1 one.

“Be maniacs in the weight room during the offseason, conditioning, with film studying, all the little things that can make a difference.”

One area where Clark hopes to see continued growth and become a difference maker is the offensive line where Branford returns the entire starting five, including Colton Allen, from its 6-5 campaign.

“I’m pushing him in the weight room and expect a huge senior season from him,” Clark said. “Barrett Young (returning as center) is our intellectual anchor of the offensive line. He’s the guy who knows all the assignments and can help other guys. Allen is the physical anchor of our offensive line. If we need a tough yard or a few tough yards a lot of times I’m calling his side. He’s a 310-pound kid that comes off the ball well and has decent strength, and he uses good technique. For him, it’s about getting stronger in the weight room. He knows the playbook well, and he’s got a college-type skills and body, and college is his goal.”

Allen added: “We’re going to be stout on the offensive line, and weightlifting will help me a lot, and the offensive line in general, because we’re going to be bigger.”

That growth would help the Bucs continue to build its program under Clark’s tutelage. The third-year coach has guided Branford to back-to-back winning seasons and playoff berths after a 17-year postseason drought that included six straight losing campaigns.

“We knew we’d have sophomores we would need to play, with a lot of unknowns going into the season: ‘who could play where; who we could count on?’ But we didn’t want to have a drop-off; we wanted a winning season, and make it back to playoffs,” he said. “We were able to accomplish that and looking back we took more steps to get balanced on offense, and improved on defense a little bit. We were better this year, even with all the youth. 6-4 during the regular season and all four losses were to quality opponents that made the playoffs. If I could have five snaps back from the season we might be 9-1.

“We were knocking on the door to have an elite season. I think it’s encouraging that we have a lot of kids coming back; I’m looking forward to next season.”

The Bucs, though, will have some big holes to fill. Among the departing players are stalwarts Junior Cress, Dakota Hamm and Colton Leibold. All three made an impact both offensively and defensively with Leibold also providing big plays on special teams for Branford.

“We have some depth at linebacker and some really good young players that can fill that void,” Clark said. “But Hamm is tough to replace, he would go get it. He’s an athlete who could pursue the ball and make plays. He is like Cress, who played a lot of snaps for us over many years in multiple positions. We’re looking at guys like Bodhi White and Markell Pugh, and Ethan Melvin, they are some names that played a lot of snaps for us this year, and may be the first ones out on the field.”

Defensively, White, Pugh and Melvin will be counted on to lead that linebacking corps for Branford’s defense. White and Pugh will also have to replace Hamm, Branford’s leading rusher with 769 yards and 13 touchdowns on just 88 carries, on offense.

“They’re both capable on both sides of the ball. They’ve both shown they can run with the football, play physical and protect the ball,” Clark said. “It’s tough to replace a 210-pound running back like Dakota Hamm, that had the kind of speed he had for his size, which is rare. You look for the next playmaker and whatever their strength’s may be.”

Complicating matters for Branford in trying to replace Hamm is the Bucs are also losing their most explosive playmaker in Leibold, who had 1,035 yards from scrimmage with 14 touchdowns.

“Same thing with Colton Leibold; you can coach for a long time and not have a kid as electric as he is in the open field,” Clark added. “He was one of the premier athletes in 1A football. He was our best receiver and he could run for us, return the ball, and he played almost every snap for us on defense. He’s a multi-tool kind of guy, so you don’t replace a kid like that. You just adapt and fit what we do to the next player.”

Helping Branford fill those voids next year, though, will be the return of rising senior quarterback Seth Heiderman. After starting part-time as a sophomore, Heiderman emerged as a prolific passer this past season, completing 112 of 182 passes for 1,803 yards and 18 touchdown to 10 interceptions.

“He’s bumping 2,000 yards this season,” Clark said. “It’d be crazy going into spring without a plan with him being under center.”

Clark added Kyson Johnson and Adrik Miller will likely fill roles at receiver alongside Clay Williams, who caught 24 passes for 436 yards and six touchdowns. Johnson, while a different kind of athlete, may emerge in a similar role as Leibold, being utilized all over the field.

“He may fill that role as a playmaker who needs to touch the ball in a variety of ways,” Clark noted. “Kind of like Leibold, he may play some at slot, some in the backfield, some at receiver, and can take over the QB-run package we had with Leibold. He also knows what to do as quarterback.

“(We have) guys who have proven they can catch the ball, and with Heiderman we have someone who can sling it. We’d be crazy to not try what we’ve been doing. We generated quite a few yards this year, for sure.”

Those playmakers have Heiderman already looking forward to 2020, where he expects to push the Bucs to even higher goals.

“We had a pretty good season, but we could have done better,” he said. “A couple plays could have made a difference.

“We want to win a playoff game and go to round two. Maybe further.”

Jeff Shourds is a sports writer for the Suwannee Democrat, Jasper News and Mayo Free Press.

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