Marion football ready for a new era

These seniors will anchor the Marion football team this season for first-year head coach Shaun Craft: front row (from left) Brandon Nguyen, Jarred Rahe, Ethan Darnall, Evann Heidebrecht, Noah Kukuk; (back row) Colton Mercer, Eli Hett, Noah Dalrymple, Sam Zinn, Chase Stringer, Blaine Mermis. Janae Rempel / Free Press
These seniors will anchor the Marion football team this season for first-year head coach Shaun Craft: front row (from left) Brandon Nguyen, Jarred Rahe, Ethan Darnall, Evann Heidebrecht, Noah Kukuk; (back row) Colton Mercer, Eli Hett, Noah Dalrymple, Sam Zinn, Chase Stringer, Blaine Mermis. Janae Rempel / Free Press
Consider a word to describe the 2018 Marion football team, and a contending choice would be “new”—new roles for a new set of starters competing in a new class with a new head coach on the sideline.

The Warriors return just one full-time starter on each side of the ball, meaning Marion will see a number of new faces on the field, just as it will on the sideline with the promotion of Shaun Craft to head coach.

For 30 years, Grant Thierolf held the head coaching role; this year, he passed the baton to his former assistant.

Craft has been with the team since coming to Marion in 2005. He said he’s learned a lot in that time, leading up to this moment as he assumes his first head football role and seeks to make the program his own.

“There’s a lot of things I learned from [Grant]—practice structures, organizational skills and planning, all the behind the scenes stuff,” Craft said. “And then also just a focus on making these guys not just good football players but good people also, on and off the field. Relating stuff to real-life situations. Those are probably some of the biggest things I’ve learned from him.”

Craft said he plans to implement “a few tweaks” this year.

“Not a whole lot has changed, but there’s some differences,” he said.

For Craft, having familiarity with the program is helpful.

“They know what to expect, and they’ve been expected to work hard all year round, and they know what it takes to be successful,” he said. “That’s definitely a benefit.”

In addition to the coaching change, also new are classifications for football. Marion will compete in Class 1A, the first of two seasons in the class, as a result of enrollment figures based on ninth, 10th and 11th grades as of Sept. 20, 2017. At that time, the Kansas State High School Activities Association reshuffled classifications, unifying the two 4A divisions into a single class and reducing the number of 3A schools from 64 to 48, meaning some schools were bumped down a class or two this year.

Competing in Class 3A last year, the Warriors started the season with a 4-0 run, then went 3-2 to conclude the regular season. Marion’s 2-1 record in district play gave the Warriors a postseason berth. The Warriors earned a bi-district win over Halstead before suffering a shutout loss to Cheney in a regional game, concluding the season with an overall record of 8-3.

Marion lost 12 seniors to graduation: Kolton Brewer, Riley Hake, Caleb Hett, Garrett Hoffner, Jarret McLinden, Austin Neufeld, Tyler Palic, Jack Schneider, Zachary Stuchlik, Antone Vinduska, Jacob Vondenkamp and Corbin Wheeler.

That’s not to say all of this year’s players are new, of course. Craft has a number of upperclassmen on the roster, but as a result of last year’s senior-laden team, many returners lack varsity experience, meaning establishing roles and developing leadership will be an important task this season, he said.

Offense

Marion’s 6-foot, 3-inch, 180-pound quarterback Chase Stringer returns to lead the offense this season. Stringer made his debut under center a year ago, and completed 16 of 47 attempts for 290 yards and four touchdowns. He threw five interceptions. Stringer was Marion’s third-leading rusher with 899 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns on 159 carries. He averaged 82 rushing yards per game.

With the graduation of two 1,000-yard rushers in Wheeler and Schneider, senior Evann Heidebrecht (5-10, 200) returns at running back to anchor the backfield this year.

“Evann did a great job stepping in last season when we had injuries and rushed for nearly 700 yards,” Craft said. “I also look for Colton Mercer and Noah Kukuk to help us in the running game this year.”

Mercer (6-0, 175) and Kukuk (6-0, 160) are also seniors this season.

“Our backfield should be pretty good,” Craft said. “Evann had a lot of experience last year, even though he wasn’t a regular starter. He did get a lot of carries at running back. And then Chase returns at quarterback, so our backfield is experienced.”

Filling receiver roles this season will be seniors Noah Dalrymple (6-3, 165), Sam Zinn (6-0, 145) and Eli Hett (6-2, 150). Some younger talent may also be in the mix, Craft said.

Marion’s biggest question mark comes in the form of the offensive line.

Those in the mix for starting roles include senior Jarred Rahe (5-10, 195) at center, senior Brandon Nguyen (6-0, 185) and junior Luke Lanning (5-8, 190) at guard, junior Matthew Christensen (5-10, 220) and sophomore Todd Palic (6-0, 175) at tackle and senior Blaine Mermis (6-4, 250) at tight end. Junior Hunter Helmer (5-10, 185) is also in the mix.

Only three—Mermis, Rahe and Nguyen—have varsity experience.

“Lucky for us, our guys that we do have working out on the O-line are smart, so they’re catching on quickly,” Craft said. “We’ve had to shuffle some guys around. We’re still trying to see exactly which pieces mesh best together.”

Defense

Marion will also need to fill quite a few starting roles on defense this year.

Just as with the offensive line, the defensive line has question marks early.

“We’ve got guys rotating across the board, like which combination are we going to go with and which one works best,” Craft said.

Craft said he expects Mermis (tackle), Nguyen (end) and Helmer (end) to anchor the line.

“Blaine got better as the season went on last year, and (we) look for him to continue improving,” he said. “Brandon is a very smart player that we will expect a lot out of this year, and Hunter is a versatile player.”

Junior Cade Alleven may also be asked to contribute.

Heidebrecht and Rahe will lead the linebacking corps—arguably Marion’s most experienced defensive position—with Mercer and Lanning joining the ranks. Marion’s only returning full-time defensive starter, Heidebrecht recorded 99 tackles a year ago, including four tackles for a loss.

Rahe brings experience as well.

“Jarred Rahe had some starts there when Tyler Palic got hurt early in the season last year and had some key plays in crucial situations, so he has some varsity experience also,” Craft said.

Meanwhile, Stringer will anchor the defensive backfield by bringing experience to the free safety position. Bolstering the secondary will be Zinn at strong safety and Dalrymple and Hett at corner.

Special teams

With the graduation of Neufeld and Hoffner, the Warriors will need to fill both kicking and punting roles this season. In the mix for kicking duties are Lanning and sophomore Braedon Mercer, while Mermis and freshman Anthony Brooks are contenders for the punting role.

“We’ve got a couple guys there that have been working out, and we’ll be all right there,” Craft said. “It’s just another one of those things it’s taken all summer to figure out.”

Outlook

Marion’s regular-season opponents remain Heart of America league schools—with the exception of Douglass—but the Warriors will see some different teams across the line of scrimmage in district play.

In addition to Marion, Class 1A District 2 consists of Hillsboro, Olpe and Leon-Bluestem.

Key to the Warriors’ success will be their dedication to the weight room and commitment to play as one team, devoting the necessary time and energy to be competitive, Craft said.

“We have some talented and capable athletes,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if we can mold them into a team that plays with one heartbeat.”

With so many new faces, it will be important to solidify roles moving forward.

“We have a lot of question marks going into this season, but we believe that we have the talent to be very successful and fight for the league, district and state championship once we figure out where all the pieces fit,” Craft said.

Marion will kick off the season by hosting Hutchinson Trinity on Friday at 7 p.m.