ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
With 105 career wins in 16 years, Marion football coach Grant Thierolf isn’t intimidated by anyone.
So moving into the Mid Central Activities Association after the Cottonwood Valley League disbanded means business as usual for the Warriors, he said.
“We try to prepare to play the best teams we’ll see on the schedule and it doesn’t matter whether they’re CVL or MCAA teams,” he said.
“We’re going to try to play as well as we can and take care of our stuff. If we do that, we really can’t worry about what other people think of us or try to do to us.”
Continuity is the cornerstone to a good program and Thierolf has surrounded himself with proven winners.
“I’ll have the same coaching staff I’ve had for the past 16 years,” he said. It includes Jerry Smith, Doug Dick and Mark Meyer.
Graduation took a toll on a team that last year won its district, captured the final CVL title, advanced to the second round of the playoffs and posted a 9-2 record. The skill positions took the biggest hit.
But Thierolf said his players worked as hard as he can remember during the summer to improve their chances this fall.
“We had from our sophomore, junior and senior classes about 94 percent attendance in the weight room, and that’s pretty doggone good,” he said. “They look forward to upholding that tradition and making themselves shine on Friday nights.”
Offensively, Marion will be led by junior quarterback Josh Kelsey (5-10, 175).
“He got a bunch of fourth quarter and junior varsity experience last year and he’s worked hard over the summer,” Thierolf said. “He’s starting to understand the responsibility that goes along with the position.
“He gives us a strong arm but we’ll have to see how quickly he learns to be a leader and read the defenses.”
Kelsey will be joined in the backfield by arguably the best all-around athlete on the team, junior Casey Nelson (5-10, 178).
“He gives us some speed back there,” Thierolf said. “Whether he’s as strong inside as we’ve had I don’t know, but he certainly gives us a better chance to get around the corners.”
In the slots, Thierolf said junior David DeForest (5-9, 157), junior Russell Ploutz (6-1, 158) and sophomore Jason Hett (6-0, 149) will battle for playing time.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape as far as being sound on the perimeter,” Thierolf said.
Wide receiver duties for Marion will fall into the hands of senior Josh Smith (6-0, 201), junior Jeff Richmond (6-0, 165) and junior Jeremy Vondenkamp (6-0, 154).
“We know Josh has excellent hands,” Thierolf said. “We’re really emphasizing our receivers being physical downfield. I feel comfortable with them and their playing time will be determined by how well they block.”
Perhaps the strength, figuratively and literally, for Marion this fall will be its line play.
Three returning starters, including senior All-CVL pick Dale Vogel (6-3, 253), will provide protection and blocking.
“We’re solid up front,” Thierolf said. “Dale is one of those kids who, when he locks on you, he stays on and moves you.
“He does a good job of understanding what we’re doing, he hustles very well and he’s very strong and physical,” he added. “I think he’ll have a chance at post-season honors and a chance to play after high school.”
Joining Vogel will be returning senior starters Tyson Heidebrecht (5-11, 188) and Drew Looper (6-0, 219).
Shawn Britton, a massive 6-2, 253-pound junior, will step in at tackle while junior Michael Brookens (5-7, 183) will snap the ball from his center position.
Speed will be a valuable asset on offense, Thierolf said.
“Overall, I think we’re faster on offense than we’ve been in the past,” Thierolf said. “We’re still an option-based offense, but we try to employ a lot of different sets and offensive formations.”
On defense, the strength will once again be in the trenches with Looper, All-CVL selection Heidebrecht and junior Adam Depler (6-3, 198) returning.
“Tyson has only one speed and that’s full,” Thierolf said. “He’s a kid I don’t think you can tire out-he just goes and goes. He has tremendous aerobic capacity.”
Vogel will step in at the other defensive end position.
“We really like what we have on the defensive line,” Thierolf said. “Our four kids are all experienced and they’ve all started at one time or another.
“We don’t have the depth we’d like, but we have some guys who can step in to spell these guys if we ask them to,” he added.
Filling the gaps at linebacker will be returning starters Nelson and Smith along with senior Brookens and either senior Chris Freeby (5-8, 189) or sophomore Casey Nickelson (5-9, 204).
“We’re a little thin and inexperienced in the middle simply because we had three-year starters there-kids who started a lot and played a lot,” Thierolf said.
The defensive backfield will be occupied by three first-year starters on Ploutz, Vondenkamp and Kelsey.
“They’re all new but I’ll tell you-they’re working hard, they’re smart. Throw Jason Hett in there and we have some depth and flexibility,” Thierolf said. “They’re quicker than they were last year and it’s just going to take some time for them to get comfortable playing at the varsity level.
“Overall, we’ll be faster on defense than we were last year, and that’s always something you look for,” Thierolf said.
Thierolf said the punting duties will be manned by Smith with Brookens long snapping.
“Josh has as good a leg as we’ve had,” he said. “He just needs to work on his consistency.”
Place-kicking duties are still wide open, Thierolf said, with Heidebrecht, Britton and Richmond battling for the job.
“Our kicking position is still wide open,” he said. “We’re waiting for someone to get consistent.”
Other players who Thierolf said could produce this fall are Casey Baker, Justin Anderson (5-7, 186), Kyle Hett (5-9, 164) and Chase Williams (6-3, 219).
Thierolf said the time the youngsters spent last year waiting in the wings will prove valuable this season.
“They were made a whole lot better by playing against such quality competition in practice every day last year,” he said. “They had to step up in practice and now they’re ready to assume the varsity responsibility.”
Team goals remain constant at Marion, no matter what league the Warriors compete in.
“We want to win league, district and state,” he said. “If we accomplish those goals, I think we’ll have had a pretty good year.
“We have to stay healthy and focused on our goals and what we want to accomplish,” he added. “We want to keep improving in the first six weeks and peak in weeks seven through nine.
“If we do that, we have a chance to accomplish our goals.”