Heading into its second year in Class 3A after a two-year stint in 2A, the Marion football team enters 2017 with a better understanding of what it will take to beat the best teams on its schedule.
The Warriors rolled through Heart of America play with a 6-0 record in 2016, and return someone with starting experience at every position on both sides of the ball. However, a 1-2 record in district play caused the Warriors to miss the playoffs. Marion ended the season with a 7-2 record.
Asked what the team can do to better prepare itself for district competition, 30th-year coach Grant Thierolf said: “That’s what we’ve talked about all year long is being able to beat the best teams on our schedule every year. We want them thinking about, this is what we have to do to be successful and to have a different outcome this year.
“We ran into a couple of buzz saws and good teams in Southeast of Saline—they were healthy when they played us—and Hesston, obviously, was a better team than what most people thought they were based on how far they ended up going.
“So we just have to play each week to the best that we can play and trust in getting better each week and then find those mistakes that we’re making and correct them, hopefully before we ever get to district play.”
Seven athletes with starting experience return in a combined 13 positions (seven on offense, six on defense), and Marion boasts six returning athletes who received recognition from Heart of America coaches at the end of last season.
Marion rolled up 3,319 yards of offense last year (2,576 rushing, 743 passing). The Warriors outscored opponents 318 to 181.
Marion will play without first team All-HOA lineman Cade Harms, but two all-league selections return to anchor the Warriors up front.
Senior Tyler Palic, a 6-foot, 1-inch, 222-pound second team, All-HOA selection, will solidify the line at guard.
“(Tyler’s) athletic ability allows him to do things that other linemen can’t,” Thierolf said. “He’s strong. He’s fast. He understands leverage. He understands the concepts of what we’re doing.”
Senior Jarret McLinden (6-3, 295), an honorable mention selection, returns at center for the Warriors, and senior Antone Vinduska (6-3, 248) returns at tackle.
“Antone has been a very valuable lineman for us the past two years,” Thierolf said. “We look for continued improvement from him.”
Seniors Caleb Hett (5-10, 275) and Jacob Vondenkamp (5-10, 178) complete the line at tackle and guard, respectively. Jared Rahe is also expected to contribute up front.
Senior Jack Schneider (6-2, 181), a first team, All-HOA pick, returns having started under center the past three years.
Schneider was one of two Warriors to surpass the 1,000-yard rushing mark, with 1,002 yards and 19 touchdowns in 113 carries.
Through the air, Schneider was 29-for-65 for 583 yards and five scores.
“After three years of playing the position, he reads it well, and he makes good decisions,” Thierolf said. “He’s a good leader.”
Thierolf said he’s never coached someone with Schneider’s speed.
“I’m not so certain if maybe the next closest kid isn’t Corbin (Wheeler), as far as overall speed, because he’s gotten faster this year,” he said. “So between those two in the backfield, we’ve got a nice punch there.”
The Warriors will play without rushing leader and first team, All-HOA running back Aaron Riggs, who carried the ball 175 times for 1,036 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.
However, at 5-feet, 10-inches, and 185 pounds, Wheeler is a returning senior starter at full back where he rushed for 362 yards last year.
Junior Evann Heidebrecht (6-0, 196) will join him in the backfield.
“Corbin and Evann will start as our running backs, and they should be a tremendous duo for us,” Thierolf said. “They have great speed and strength, and we look forward to seeing what they can do this year.”
Senior Zachary Stuchlik (6-3, 174) returns at slot back, where he will be joined by junior Chase Stringer (6-3, 174), who also serves as backup quarterback.
“(Chase will) be able to block well for us,” Thierolf said. “He’ll be able to do some other things. He catches the ball extremely well. He’s got great hands.”
Wide receivers/tight ends
Senior Garrett Hoffner (6-0, 196) returns to anchor the receiving corps, which also includes Stuchlik, Austin Neufeld and Noah Dalrymple.
“Our tight ends will be athletic and can run,” Thierolf said. “Garrett has started two years and we look for him to step into a pass-receiving role this year.
“Zach and Noah will most likely become the primary threats as outside receivers.”
Junior Blaine Mermis (6-4, 248) joins the team for the first time. He will contribute at tight end.
“Noah is developing as a football player,” Thierolf said. “He still needs to get stronger, but he will hit you and he’ll do a good job of blocking. Blaine’s a big body that’s learning our system, and hopefully he will get better as the season goes along. Zachary and Austin both have done a nice job for us.”
Thierolf said he would like to see defensive improvement this year. Marion gave up 2,277 yards last year, and opponents converted 42 percent of fourth down plays attempted.
McLinden returns to anchor the line at the tackle position. Mermis and senior Kolton Brewer (5-10, 176) join McLinden as defensive ends.
“We will need to replace most of our defensive linemen, but we have some good players from which to choose,” Thierolf said. “Antone Vinduska, Blaine Mermis, Jacob Vondenkamp, Caleb Hett and Jarret McLinden should all be able to help us up front.”
Palic returns to anchor the linebacking corps as a first-team, All-HOA selection a year ago. He tallied a team-best 134 tackles.
“(Tyler’s) started for three years,” Thierolf said “It just allows him the opportunity to have seen so many different things. He recalls things pretty well and recognizes what’s been done and what we’ve seen.”
Hoffner also returns as an inside backer, while Vondenkamp and Heidebrecht will contribute at outside linebacker.
“Tyler will team with Garrett to form a very experienced inside linebacking corps,” Thierolf said. “Evann and Jacob will fit in for our defense very well at outside linebacker.”
Graduated senior Peyton Heidebrecht (90 tackles) was a second-team selection at linebacker last year.
Marion returns three of four starters in the secondary, led by Wheeler at safety. He was a first-team, All-HOA pick last year. He recorded 90 tackles last year, including two tackles for a loss.
Schneider returns at safety, as does Stuchlik at corner. Senior Riley Hake (5-10, 156) and Dalrymple are also expected to contribute.
Hoffner was a second-team All-HOA punter last year. He punted the ball 22 times for an average of 32.6 yards.
Austin Neufeld was an honorable-mention pick as a kicker when Marion averaged 41.7 yards per kickoff.
Thierolf said it will be important for his team to improve defensively.
“We did OK holding our own in our league sometimes, but if we’re going to get to that next level, we’ve got to improve our defense against the better teams that we play,” he said. “That starts by being solid every week and taking our responsibilities and really working to get better at the skills that we have.”
For Thierolf, a successful season will be athletes who accept their roles and play to the best of their ability.
“Getting these kids to play as hard as we can and playing as a team will be the biggest thing,” he said. “If we can get that accomplished, then we’ll be successful.”