Experience and depth give the Ballard football team high hopes of returning to the playoffs despite more rigorous qualifying standards in 2016.

Ballard went 7-4 last year and won its opening-round playoff game. The Bombers were 9-2 with a district championship in 2014.

This season Ballard will play in a whole new district — Class 3A District 2. The Bombers also must deal with a smaller playoff field as it has shrunk from 32 to 16 teams — making it so only two teams from each district automatically qualify — with two teams chosen as at-large picks to fill out the rest of the 3A field.

“When district play does start, you don’t want to slip up anywhere,” Christian said. “Every Friday night is going to be tough in district play. But our expectations at the end of the year is hopefully to be right there as one of those top two teams.”

Dallas Center-Grimes, Boone, Gilbert, Greene County, Perry, Iowa Falls-Alden and Webster City make up the rest of 3A District 2.

“Obviously, Dallas Center-Grimes will probably be the favorite going in,” Christian said. “Boone I think will surprise people with the number of returners they have back, Gilbert returns a lot of good players (and) Webster City is always strong.”

In non-district play Ballard will face Raccoon River Conference rivals Carlisle — a 2015 playoff qualifier — and Adel-Desoto-Minburn to open the season. Both games will be on the road.

With a tough schedule ahead, Ballard will benefit from having nine players back with quality experience on the offensive side of the ball. The Bombers will be multiple on offense and run out of a lot of spread formations.

Ballard brings back quarterback Max Stoltz, along with leading rusher Hunter Wright and receiver Austin Edwards. Stoltz and Edwards will be seniors this fall and Wright is entering his junior campaign.

In 2015, Stoltz completed 50 of 88 passes for 585 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran for 617 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Wright ran for 1,014 yards and seven touchdowns last fall. He also made five catches for 39 yards and one score.

Edwards caught 18 passes for 289 yards and five touchdowns in 2015. Tyler Ihle also returns as a big weapon at receiver as the senior caught 12 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns in 2015.

Junior Gavin Hobbs will help out in the slot and as a second running back in the two-back set for Ballard. In 2015, Hobbs ran for 228 yards and six touchdowns.

Junior Trey Drummond and sophomore Reece Huen will help out at receiver and the slot respectively.

“They both bring different things to the table that we haven’t had,” Christian said of Drummond and Huen. “It kind of makes our offense even better.”

On the offensive line, Ballard will have seniors Jack Baumhover, Lawton Wright and Austin Gealow. Junior Tyler Maire came on strong last season for Ballard on the offensive line and junior Colin Anderson will move into the center position.

On defense, Ballard will rely on the return of three starters in the backfield and one of the more impressive linebacking corps in the entire state. The Bombers will run a 4-3 on the defensive side of the ball.

Returning in the defensive backfield for Ballard are senior safeties Kenton Brekke and Taylor Roberts and senior Noah Rosing at cornerback. Brekke made 66.5 tackles and one interception and Roberts had 27 tackles and one fumble recovery in 2015.

Junior Gannon Manfull will fill the other corner spot for Ballard.

Seniors Seth Moore, Cade Wilson and Kaleb Odden form a truly imposing group of linebackers for the Bombers. Moore and Wilson were both all-district performers a year ago.

“I think (they’re) the three best linebackers probably in the state,” Christian said. “I really like what they can do. They can run, they can hit and they’re good leaders. We’re excited about that group.”

In 2015 Moore delivered 98.5 tackles, Wilson made 93 stops with one interception and Odden produced 52.5 tackles and four fumble recoveries.

Ballard will have some rebuilding to do on the defensive line.

At defensive end Ballard will have Bryce Strumpfer - the starting center last year - and Sam Upah - a starting outside linebacker in 2015. Upah recorded 13.5 tackles a year ago.

Senior Kory Conrad, junior Ben Lee and sophomore Blake Hughes will be in the mix at defensive tackle.

On special teams, Ballard returns Stoltz at punter after he averaged 40.2 yards on 31 punts a year ago. Senior C.J. Poots and Brendan Vincent are competing for kicking duties.

“What’s nice is that this group has got a lot of experience,” Christian said. “They have high expectations - they know what it takes. Of course, like everybody, we want to stay injury-free, but if we can do that there’s no reason from week to week we shouldn’t be getting better and playing our best at the end.”

Ballard’s season opener at Carlisle will take place on Aug. 26.