Experience is everything for a Marion High School football team intent on establishing itself as a district powerhouse by earning a playoff berth after a 5-4 record in 2011.
“We expect to be very good,” coach Grant Thierolf said. “We have a good mix of linemen, a good mix of skilled kids. We’re a pretty experienced team.”
The Warrior roster boasts 21 juniors and seniors, most of whom have had varsity playing time.
Leading Marion’s offense will be junior quarterback and defensive back Taylor Heidebrecht, who took some snaps last year as a backup up to now-departed senior quarterback Cole Lewman.
“He runs the option well, throws the ball well and gives us some speed and quickness that is a nice plus there,” Thierolf said of Heidebrecht.
The Warriors have some big shoes to fill with the graduation of standout running back Colten Johnson and receiver Dakin Ledford.
Thierolf said a high school coach faces that issue every year.
“You always find kids who are willing to work hard enough to step up and do that, because they’ve seen the acclaim our good players get,” he said. “We’ve had some kids work awfully hard to take over those roles.”
Marion fields a running back core that brings size to the mix, wearing down opponents’ defenses without sacrificing a lot of speed.
Upperclassmen Morgan Wheeler, James Jones and Brody Carroll will share the load with sophomore Kyle Palic.
“When we play, we get tired of hitting big backs,” Thierolf said. “Morgan, Kyle and James, they carry a load…. And then Brody gives us a nice dimension as someone who can get on the edge and run the type of plays that we like.”
The offensive line is still somewhat in flux, Thierolf said, but likely candidates are Ethan Hett, Nicholas Meyer, Blake Stringer, Zac Lewman, Isaac Baldwin and Dylan Goebel.
Spencer Fugitt, who is slated to play both ways as an inside back, injured his foot in practice but is expected to return the third or fourth week of the season.
“When he comes back, we’re just going to be that much better,” Thierolf said.
Rounding out the offense is a triple threat of receivers that includes junior Zac Robson and senior Eric Regnier and led by senior Jacob Harper.
“Jacob Harper is having a great camp so far, catching everything thrown to him,” Thierolf said.
Senior Wiley Lundy and junior Zac Robson will come in at tight end.
“All those kids are juniors and seniors with the exception of Kyle (Palic),” Thierolf said. “That’s a nice plus to have, because they all have some varsity experience and we hope to use that.”
The Warriors also field depth and a solid upperclassmen lineup across the front for their defense.
Playing in the secondary for Marion will be Jon Nordquist, Lundy and Lewman, with Meyer, Baldwin, Stringer and Goebel as defensive tackles.
Lance Knolla and Sean Buchanan are slated to join Wheeler, Palic and Fugitt as inside backers.
“So we have five there who have played and started for us at one time or another,” Thierolf said.
Marion also has a solid outside backer core with Grif Case, Hett and Carroll. Heidebrecht, Robson, Jones and Harper will come in as defensive backs.
“It should be a good, experienced group,” Thierolf said.
“We’ve got to fly to the ball better, be able to put more pressure on the quarterback than we did last year. There’s some things that we need to do better, but this is a group that athletically can do that.
“Now it’s just a matter of how much it means to them and if all the hard work they put in the weight room and running and doing all that stuff, if they’re going to have it pay off for them.”
The Warriors also appear to be solid in special teams, with Case returning as kicker and Wheeler and Palic sharing punting duties.
Regnier is listed at long snapper, though he’s been inconsistent at times and is being pushed by Lewman, Thierolf said.
Kick returns will be handled by Carroll, with Heidebrecht and Jones likely to put in some time as well.
“The people we have on special teams ought to be experienced and know the importance of being able to play and be a nice addition to what we do offensively and defensively,” Thierolf said.
Marion will need all aspects of its game on par this year if the Warriors hope to knock off reigning league champion Sedgwick and advance in a tough district.
“I think it starts with Sedgwick because they’re the returning champions, and until someone knocks them off, it’s still theirs,” Thierolf said.
Hutch Trinity and Ell-Saline are also expected to be tough league games, with Halstead, Moundridge and Hillsboro vying for district honors.
“It’ll just be one of those things of who can stay healthy and which one of those teams is playing well at the end of the year,” Thierolf said.
It will be a tough battle, but it comes down to winning every play, every down, he said.
“If they can win those individual battles and start getting those things accomplished,” Thierolf said, “then we have a chance to be a good football team.”