LEROY – The numbers might not be in Pine River’s favor, but football coach Chad Phillips is looking for quality to pave the way for a banner season.

The Bucks will be bidding to improve on their 2-7 mark a year ago and make some noise in the Highland Conference.

Phillips said he has 20 players on the varsity team and 25 JV players.

“We’re low on varsity,” Phillips said. “We only have five juniors. That’s a real low number.”

But the Bucks coach has been somewhat content with what his players were able to get done coming into the August practice session.

“Summer was hit-and-miss with quite a few guys,” he said. “It wasn’t the commitment you hope for. But so far the guys are working hard and we’re catching up on people. As long as we stay healthy — that’s the key — we should be competitive.”

Phillips said he has 13 players back from last season.

“We’ve got a good group of seniors,” he said. “We’re pretty excited about that. We’re making some changes so part of it is, making some (adjustments) on offense and new things on defense.”

The season kicks off at home on Aug. 24 against Kalkaska.

Phillips focused on leadership training during the summer. Six seniors: Maverick Martin, Tom Miller, Cason Rawson, Devin Ruppert, Maverick Martin and Ethan Whitley, were designated as lieutenants.

“These are my five guys that have been here,” Phillips said, referring to his leadership training program. “We’re trying to train them to be leaders rather than saying, ‘hey you’re captains.’ At the end of the season we vote.

“You should earn that by what you do,” he added. “But these guys are learning about what people say about leadership and how to be a leader.”

Martin expressed his personal satisfaction with how the leadership training prevailed.

He’s a 6-foot-2, 170-pound defensive lineman and tight end.

“It’s a group of guys who want to have a good role on the younger teammates,” he said.

The Bucks have a talented passer in junior quarterback Skyler Nelson but Rawson also anticipates having a strong running attack.

“I like to bull through,” he said, adding that as a defensive end, “I’m quick, I’m strong.”

It’s critical for the Bucks to stick together this season, Rawson added.

“Skyler is a quarterback on offense and will give us a boost,” Rawson said. “On defense, we have some solid linebackers.”

Rawson also is confident the team could make the playoffs.

“We’re not the biggest team out there,” he said. “We’re small and quick as heck. We just need to stick together and support each other.”

The Highland Conference is expected to be another tough league with the likes of Beal City, Evart, Lake City and McBain leading the way.

But Miller is confident the team can make the playoffs this season.

“We have to play all four quarters and not slack off anywhere with everyone doing their job,” he said.