R.J. Evans Ripley football

Senior running back R.J. Evans (left) is a third-year starter for Ripley.

Freed from the scheduling constraints of the rugged Mountain State Athletic Conference, Ripley could be in for a turnaround season.

A charter member of the MSAC 25 years ago before recently departing, Ripley embarks on a new season with a new schedule and perhaps a new outlook as a Class AAA independent. The Vikings, 4-6 a year ago, haven’t had a winning record or a playoff berth since 2009.

Ripley faces four new teams on its schedule, dropping Spring Valley, Huntington, George Washington and South Charleston for games against Marietta (Ohio), Brooke, Princeton and Greenbrier East. The way it shakes out, the Vikings don’t face a single team with a winning record last season — Marietta’s 5-5 was the best of its 10 opponents.

“We’re excited about our schedule,’’ said Eddie Smolder, the Vikings’ fourth-year coach. “We’ve been working on it for a couple of years. It’s still a tough schedule — there are no easy games, but it’s a schedule more compatible to the type of school and kids we have. We feel good about it — we could lose every game, we could win every game.’’

With just 29 teams in West Virginia’s Class AAA division and 16 qualifying for the postseason, Ripley’s chances of ending its playoff drought have increased dramatically.

“The goal this year is to make the playoffs,’’ Smolder said, “but that’s everybody’s goal, so it’s no secret.

“We’ve got a good senior group, and this is my fourth year with them. We’re excited about their leadership and all the hard work they’ve put in the last four years. Hopefully, they can carry us, and the young guys follow their lead.’’

One of those seniors is running back R.J. Evans (5-foot-9, 160 pounds), who enters his third year as a starter. Evans ran for 758 yards and six touchdowns last season despite missing a game. He turned in three 100-yard-plus games on the ground last year, and the Vikings were 3-0 in those games.

“He’s a tough kid,’’ Smolder said, “and he’s a hard worker.’’

At quarterback, the Vikes lost a two-year starter in Brayden Campbell and currently have two seniors battling at the position in Justin Wheeler (6-2, 166) and Cyrus Casto (6-0, 173).

“Those two kids are really coachable, and they work hard,’’ Smolder said. “They’re basically sharing time right now. They can both run the offense, and they can both play receiver.’’

The team’s leading returning receiver is senior Evan King (5-7, 149), who caught six passes last season for 118 yards.

Smolder said the offensive and defensive lines are led by a pair of senior returnees — Caydan Keeler (6-0, 260) and Andrew Dolin (6-1, 235).

“They’re two of the strongest kids on the team,’’ Smolder said, “and relentless workers.’’

Smolder said the season can be broken down into three key areas for the Vikings.

“No. 1, we have to play great defense,’’ he said. “We played good defense the last two years, but for us to be a playoff team, we have to play great defense.

“No. 2, we have to protect the football better. Offensive turnovers have hurt us in key games in the past, and were the real difference in the game. No. 3, we’ve got to move the chains and win the time of possession.’’

Smolder said the team’s second scrimmage (against John Marshall) had to be moved to the middle school field because the Vikings’ new turf wasn’t ready, but it’s expected to be so for the home opener, which comes in Week 3 against Riverside on Sept. 7.

Ripley opens its season at Parkersburg South on Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. The Vikings have won their last two meetings with the Patriots after losing six in a row from 2010-15.

Contact Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickRyanWV.