Roy Lee

Press file photo

Freedom running back Roy Lee, seen here last season, will man the Falcons backfield this season.

After last year’s 9-4 campaign that led Freedom all the way to the North Coast Section (NCS) Division I championship game for the second consecutive year, graduation hit the Falcons hard.

Only three of the 14 all-league selections from the 2018 team return to the Falcons this season, but a younger group of players and a handful of returners hope they, too, will take flight.

“It’s a work in progress, but we are excited about the season,” said Freedom head coach Andrew Cotter.

The Falcons will need to replace their leading 2018 passer (Joey Aguilar) and their top four receivers (Giles Jackson, Mekel Ealy, Jaimier Parker and Kimahni Tolefree) on offense, while also working to overcome the loss of their two best tacklers (all-league linebacker Hunter McAllister and all-league defensive back Daniel Roanhorse) on defense.

Returning senior quarterback Jake Byrne, who completed 31 of 75 passes for 456 yards and nine touchdowns in eight games last season, will assume the full-time quarterback role this year.

Returning senior Roy Lee, the team’s 2018 leading rusher (119 attempts for 751 yards and two touchdowns), returns to anchor a run game that will also feature his brother, newcomer junior Jordan Lee.

Returning junior Seth Hartshorn and returning senior Nolan Phillips will hold down the offensive line, along with newcomers, senior Angel Gonzalez, junior William Baldwin and Jacob Stephano.

The receiving corps is expected to feature returning seniors Juan Sanchez and Julian Partida and promising juniors Matthew Quesada and Deniro Killian Jr.

Defensively, returning junior Caleb Hunter will anchor the line, along with Baldwin, junior Gavyn Tobin and senior Tyler Miller.

Familiar faces Brett Bausola and Robert Garcia — both all-league second team members a year ago — will hold down the linebacking core with fellow returners, junior Tyler Lepolo and senior Trevor Fleming.

Lee is also expected to hold down the team’s secondary with a number of other undisclosed candidates, Cotter said.

“We had a great group of seniors last year and there is a lot of production offensively and defensively that we are losing,” Cotter said, “but we are excited about the younger guys who are coming through, and hopefully they will fill in those shoes that the other guys left.”

In traditional Freedom fashion, the Falcons aren’t backing down from the area’s top talent, with games scheduled against five playoff teams from a year ago, including a matchup with reigning NCS Division 1 champion San Ramon Valley, who grounded the Falcons 28-21 in the section championship game last season.

Freedom’s non-league schedule also features 2018 NCS Division I semifinalists Cal High, fellow 2018 NCS Division I playoff team San Leandro, and Turlock and Antelope — 2018 Sac-Joaquin Section Division I and III playoff teams, respectively.

“We always want to play the best,” Cotter said. “That is what Freedom football has always been about.”