“The biggest thing I’ve tried to instill in my players is that if you work hard, good things happen,” Thierolf said. “You cannot be afraid of putting the time in.”
Thierolf is now in a stretch of five years without a post-season appearance, but having having guided an 11-2 run to a berth in the 1994 state championship game, Thierolf has seen his teams cover the range of possibilities on the football field.
Assembling a healthy winning record over a career’s worth of games certainly requires experience and hard work. But it also requires a high level of talent and a little bit of luck from season to season.
Sometimes the luck is bad. With only four hold holdovers available after claiming an MCAA Mid Division title in 2005, the Warriors’ chances took a big hit during the first game of the 2006 campaign when senior quarterback Jason Hett went down with an injured hand. Hett sat out the rest of the year, and Marion finished with a 2-7 record.
“It was hard, but we still enjoyed coming to practice every day and our kids played hard every game,” Thierolf said. “We just weren’t as good as the teams we were playing.
“We played well, but the teams we were playing just happened to be better than us last year.”
Graduation claimed seven of that team’s veterans, but with 10 returning starters, the Warriors will actually be more experienced in 2007 than they were in 2006.
Consider junior Mitchell Leppke (5 feet 8 inches, 155 pounds), who took over at quarterback when Hett went down. As a sophomore, Leppke threw for 215 yards and five touchdowns in addition to running for 84 yards and four scores.
“Mitchell did a nice job in a tough situation for us last year, and we’ll look for him to really lead our team this year,” Thierolf said.
Seniors Austin Hager (5-9, 193), Chase Carlson (5-10, 139) and Hank Collett (5-7, 162) return to familiar positions on both sides of the ball, as does junior Matt Thierolf (6-0, 204).
“Our biggest strength should be our offensive line,” Grant Thierolf said.
Collett will line up at guard, Thierolf at tackle and senior Brett Billings (6-0, 179) will return at center.
Parker Ash (6-0, 225) and Brian Fruechting (6-0, 207), both sophomores, will fill the remaining offensive-line positions.
“We really like our sophomore class—there may be a lot of talent in it,” Thierolf said.
“Collett and Billings did a very nice job for us last fall and both will be better players this year,” he said. “And Matt Thierolf should continue to get better.”
Adam Regnier, Charlie Holub (5-7, 159), Sheldon Boone (5-8, 166) and Wil Case are vying for the two starting slot-back positions that flank the line in Thierolf’s base offense.
“All four bring something to the table, and we’re looking forward to seeing which two can be most productive at a position that requires blocking and running skills,” Thierolf said.
Carlson, having caught five passes for 39 yards in 2006, will be the team’s most experienced receiving option.
He will be joined on the edge by Justin Heidebrecht (6-1, 176) and Luke Gordon (6-5, 175), who round out the returning receiving corps.
“Our receivers will be more experienced and will be better on the perimeter than they were last year,” Thierolf said.
Even with improvements in the passing game, expect most of Marion’s yards to come on the legs of its running backs.
“We’re going to be sound on the ground,” Thierolf said. “If you can run the ball and stop the run, then it makes the whole game a lot easier.”
That approach will help pave the way for Hager, who may handle punting duties on special teams in addition to starting at running back and linebacker. He posted four touchdowns along with 537 yards on 103 carries in 2006, and may be even better in this season.
“Austin has gotten bigger and faster and will be a solid back for us,” Thierolf said.
Derek Riggs (5-8, 215) will also carry the ball after totaling 128 yards on 38 attempts last year.
“Derek will provide another rugged inside runner for us,” Thierolf said.
On defense, Riggs will team with tackles Mark Kukuk (5-5, 165), Doug Schroeder, Ash and Fruechting to anchor the defensive line.
“As they get better and more experienced, our defense will improve,” Thierolf said.
A combination of Billings, Gordon and Eric Vogel will take on the defensive end responsibiities.
Four returning linebackers set up shop behind that line: Brad Klenda (6-1, 184), Holub, Matt Thierolf, Hager and Collett.
“Our linebackers should be a very strong group for us,” Grant Thierolf said. “All five started at different times and played well for us,” he added. “And they are a year wiser and faster and stronger.”
Carlson and Heidebrecht will be the team’s top cornerbacks while Leppke and Nick Klenda (6-3, 200) will be vying for the free safety position.
“We have a number of good, young defensive backs that we look forward to competing for us,” Thierolf said.
Case, Regnier and Drew Maddox will provide depth in the defensive backfield.
“Our defense will be more experienced everywhere except defensive line,” Thierolf said.
On special teams, Fruechting will kick and Nick Klenda will challenge Hager for the punting duties.
Marion has three options for punt and kick returns in Heidebrecht, Boone and Maddox. “They will provide us with a chance for great field position every change of possession,” Thierolf said.
The team already posssesses the sort of attitude and work ethic prized by coaches.
“I like this team, I like the makeup of it and it’s a fun team to be around,” Thierolf said. “We’re enjoying practice. It has been hot and the kids have been working hard, doing everything we ask of them.”
So in the final summation, what do these qualities mean for the Warriors’ 2007 season?
“We don’t yet know how this year’s team compares to previous years, and we won’t know until we see our first game,” Thierolf said.
“We have to stay injury-free, obviously, and we’re not blessed with a whole lot of juniors and seniors,” he added. “Our young kids have to mature quickly.”