MHS football deep with veterans

The Marion football team returns someone with starting experience at every position. These seniors and returning letter-winners will anchor the team this season: front row (from left) Kolton Brewer, Bryce Shults, Austin Neufeld, Mason Pedersen, Corbin Wheeler, Noah Albin, Aaron Riggs; (middle row) Evann Heidebrecht, Jacob Vondenkamp, Garrett Hoffner, Jack Schneider, Peyton Heidebrecht, Cade Harms, Jeremy Hett; (back row) Caleb Hett, Chase Stringer, Antone Vinduska, Daniel Hinton, Jarret McLinden, Tyler Palic, Nathan Baldwin, Zachary Stuchlik.
The Marion football team returns someone with starting experience at every position. These seniors and returning letter-winners will anchor the team this season: front row (from left) Kolton Brewer, Bryce Shults, Austin Neufeld, Mason Pedersen, Corbin Wheeler, Noah Albin, Aaron Riggs; (middle row) Evann Heidebrecht, Jacob Vondenkamp, Garrett Hoffner, Jack Schneider, Peyton Heidebrecht, Cade Harms, Jeremy Hett; (back row) Caleb Hett, Chase Stringer, Antone Vinduska, Daniel Hinton, Jarret McLinden, Tyler Palic, Nathan Baldwin, Zachary Stuchlik.
If there is strength in numbers, Marion will be a force to reckon with on the gridiron this season.

The Warriors return someone with starting experience at every position on both sides of the ball, leaving 29th-year coach Grant Thierolf optimistic about the season ahead.

“We’ve got some nice challenges for some starting positions with as many returning starters as we had coming back, but this group really hasn’t done anything,” Thierolf said. “They qualified for the playoffs two years ago, didn’t qualify last year. We don’t have a league championship. So there’s no reason this group should feel anything but excitement that new opportunities lie ahead of them.”

The Warriors are developing depth, Thierolf said. Translating Marion’s experience into success will require each player taking pride in completing his assignment on every play.

Marion returns to Class 3A this year after a two-year stint in Class 2A, The Warriors will play three district games—against South­east of Saline, Hillsboro and Hesston—instead of four. The Warriors are the second-smallest school in Class 3A.

Thierolf said district play will be tougher this year, with noticeable differences between Class 2A and 3A in terms of depth. The switch also will mean more opportunities for junior varsity games, he said.

Offense

Marion returns two-year starting quarterback Jack Schneider. The 6-foot, 2-inch 181-pound junior was a second-team all-league selection a year ago. Schneider rushed for 742 yards last season, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and 82 yards per game. He scored 10 rushing touchdowns. He completed 45 of 105 pass attempts for 766 yards and eight touchdowns.

“Everybody always talks about the longer you play, the game slows down for you,” Thierolf said. “Your mind gets used to seeing the situations that you’ve been in, and if you’re an athlete, then you can react to those based on past experiences. Jack’s doing a nice job of that.”

In the backfield, Marion returns a trio of athletes: senior Aaron Riggs at fullback (5-10, 198), junior Cor­bin Wheeler at tailback (5-10, 170) and senior Peyton Heidebrecht at slot back (5-8, 205).

Riggs, a first-team selection last year, was Marion’s leading rusher, averaging 104 yards per game. He bulldozed his way to 938 yards on the ground, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and scoring nine touchdowns.

“Aaron has had a good year for us, a good summer,” Thierolf said. “He really wants to finish out being a great high school football player for Marion High School, and that’s a noble goal that he has.”

In his sophomore campaign, Wheeler tallied 544 yards on 74 carries, averaging 7.4 yards per carry and 60 yards per game. He scored five touchdowns.

“Corbin, obviously, is a very talented young man,” Thierolf said. “We’ve got to find ways to get him the ball.”

Heidebrecht, meanwhile, carried the ball 15 times for 69 yards and scored four touchdowns. Through the air, he recorded 11 receptions for 164 yards.

“Peyton Heidebrecht does a great job blocking for us, and is a very good fullback as well,” Thierolf said. “We’ve got depth there.”

Sophomore Evann Heidebrecht provides depth in the backfield as well.

Second-team wide receiver Mason Pedersen (6-0, 153) returns for his senior campaign. Pedersen hauled in 17 receptions for 430 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015. He averaged 25.3 receiving yards per game.

Senior Bryce Shults (5-11, 155) and junior Zachary Stuchlik provide flexibility as wideouts, while junior Garrett Hoffner (6-0, 186) returns at tight end.

Senior Cade Harms will anchor a solid line up front. The 6-0, 253-pound all-state offensive guard was also a first-team, all-league selection a year ago.

“Cade has seen a lot of things as an offensive lineman, so things don’t surprise him as much when he goes into a game,” Thierolf said. “That’s a good thing.”

Junior Tyler Palic (6-1, 216) also returns at guard.

Two seniors will solidify the tackle position: Jeremy Hett (5-11, 225) and Nathan Baldwin (6-1, 215).

Junior Jarret McLinden (6-3, 285) returns at center, although Thierolf said that position is still up for grabs between four players.

The Warriors return seven linemen with starting experience.

“We’re trying to make certain we’ve got kids who can play multiple positions on the offensive line. We’ve got eight or nine guys who we think could play for us on Friday night and be successful.”

Defense

The Warriors are deep defensively, as 14 athletes return with starting experience. Marion will field the fastest defense it has had in awhile, Thierolf said.

“Part of the reason why we want to get more speed on the field is because that just gives you an opportunity to cover things better in space,” Thierolf said.

Harms and Hett will take their places, at tackle and end, respectively, on a deep and talented defensive line.

Junior Jacob Vonden­kamp (5-11, 170) returns at defensive end.

Linebackers

Palic will anchor Marion’s linebacking corps this season. A second-team honoree last year, Palic tallied 121 tackles, including four tackles for a loss. Joining him as returning linebackers are Peyton Heidebrecht, Hoffner and senior Noah Albin (5-10, 165).

Last season, Heidebrecht recorded 84 tackles, Hoffner 75 and Albin 41.

The Warriors return two athletes with all-league accolades at cornerback in Pedersen, a second-team pick, and Shults, an honorable mention selection. Shults hauled in a team-best four interceptions last year. He had 49 tackles, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick. Pedersen had 17 tackles and two interceptions.

Wheeler returns at safety, having led the Warriors with 123 tackles a year ago.

“(Corbin’s) quick to the ball, he’s strong and he’s worked hard at getting better,” Thierolf said. “He’s aggressive and he reads plays pretty well.”

Special teams

Shults returns as the Warriors’ long snapper, while Hoffner is Marion’s returning punter. Junior Austin Neufeld (5-7, 148) will be the kicker. Meanwhile, Pedersen, Wheeler and Schneider will be tagged with kick-return duties.

“We return all of our guys (on special teams),” Thierolf said. “Austin has probably been the nicest surprise. He’s really gotten better, as far as a kickoff guy and putting the ball where we want it.”

Outlook

Thierolf said he hopes to instill a drive in each of his players to take care of their responsibilities until the whistle blows on every play and not let their teammates down.

“Some of them have it already (and) some of them are working on it,” he said. “That’s an attribute that great teams have, and it’s an attribute that great players have.”

Thierolf’s goals for the season remain unchanged.

“We want to win the league, we want to win the district, and we want to win state,” he said. “If we do those three things, I’ll be a happy coach at the end of the year.”

Marion will open its season Friday by hosting Moundridge at Warrior Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m.