CANISTOTA -- James Strang does not like to talk about state championship expectations at the beginning of the season.

It’s ironic, considering his teams have won four Class 9A state titles since 2011, including the first with the Canistota/Freeman co-op last season in rout of Cornbelt Conference foe Howard at the DakotaDome.

Sixteen of the Pride’s 34 players return from last season, but Class 9A is a little more crowded this season with the additions of back-to-back Class 9B runner-up Sully Buttes, Castlewood and Wall. Still, Canistota/Freeman was picked No. 2 in the South Dakota Prep Media poll in the preseason — only surpassed by Sully Buttes — and Strang expects his team to be strong once again.

“We want to make sure we just compete, and hopefully by the time the end of the year rolls around, we’re sitting in that conference championship game,” Strang said. “Hopefully we can get that step under our foot and win a conference title and see what happens when the playoffs shake out.”

Trey Ortman returns for his senior season, and while the quarterback is coming off a year that saw him throw for 1,625 yards and 21 touchdowns -- with a 66.9 completion percentage -- Strang says the offense scheme the same.

Canistota/Freeman relies on multipronged rushing attack that averaged 271 yards per game last season. Ortman also ran 762 yards and 15 scores, and the Class 9A title game MVP will have some explosive players behind him.

Bailey Sage returns at fullback (624 yards and nine touchdowns) and Tyce Ortman -- last year’s leading receiver -- moves to tailback in an attempt to replace now-graduated Austin Thu’s 1,393 yards and 22 touchdowns.

“Our offense runs through three different parts and Trey is just another cog in the wheel,” Strang said. “When at our highest points, we’re running between tailback, quarterback and fullback and we have a burner at wide receiver in Colin Helma. We’re most effective when we have three or four parts working in unison.”

The Pride also returns Micah Swensen, Cole Papendick and Clayton Smith on the line, but with Castlewood and Class 9AA champion Bon Homme on the schedule preceding the inaugural Cornbelt Conference championship game to close the regular season, Strang wants his team to continue to stay sharp throughout the year.

“You come in off a state championship year and you think you have everything in place,” Strang said. “We have to be hypercritical of all the little things that make the big picture pretty. … This group has to be hungry and be willing to work hard at the intricacies of what we do. We have to sharpen and execute everything in the game plan.”

Canistota/Freeman opens the season against Chester Area at 7 p.m. Friday in Chester.