INDEPENDENCE — Following a nine-year run as head coach at Neodesha, John Black has jumped up in classifications to tackle the same position at Class 4A Independence High School.

Of course, Black faces a big challenge ahead as he takes over a Bulldog program that went winless a year ago.

“I love the challenge that is before me,” said Black, who compiled a 51-38 record at Neodesha with six Class 3A playoff appearances, three district championships and two bi-district titles. “They were very young last year especially on the O-line. I think that will help us out this year. I would like to see more kids being involved in the summer, but the ones that were out there I felt they were dedicated to the program. I think we have a great attitude right now. They were winless a lot in part because they played young players last year, which should help us this year.”

Not much of anything went right for IHS a year ago. The Bulldogs went 0-4 for last place in the Southeast Kansas League and closed out the regular season winless, earning a low seed in the West bracket of the new 4A playoff format. They eventually closed out an 0-9 season following a blowout loss to McPherson in the opening round — the program’s first winless campaign since 2006.

Independence returns 14 players in the starting lineup this season — seven on offense and seven on defense.

The offensive unit will include such players as senior Brayden Coller at quarterback, senior Amauryon Farley and junior Travareus Wilson in the backfield, senior Wyatt Chism at wide receiver, and senior Trevor Rinne as well as juniors Evan Knight and Morgan Melle on the line.

Many of those same players will be back on defense, with Coller and Wilson at defensive back; Farley, Chism and Rinne at linebacker; as well as juniors Ian Oliver and Jaxon Jarnigan at linebacker and defensive end, respectively.

Although the Bulldogs have some more experienced players back this season, they will still have to go through a challenging schedule that begins on Sept. 6 with a trip to El Dorado. That will be followed up with four straight SEK games — home matchups with Labette County on Sept. 13, Fort Scott Sept. 20 and county rival Coffeyville Sept. 27, and a trip to Chanute Oct. 4. Down the stretch, IHS will play three non-league games, including a visit to Kansas City, Mo., to take on Center Oct. 11, a home game with Towanda-Circle Oct. 18 and the regular-season finale Oct. 25 at Rose Hill.

“I am waiting for the leaders to step up,” Black said. “Right now, I think everyone is trying to find their place on the field and their comfort zones. We really need some team leaders to step up and take control and get the other players going in the right direction. There are a lot of great young men on this team. They just need to know that it is their team, and we can go as far as they want if they work at it and get the others to work as hard as they can. We have to have dependability.”