Sign of the times
Expectations high as Chieftains look to reload again after 9-2 season
Tonganoxie football players are ready to tackle someone other than fellow Chieftains.
"We've had a year's worth of injuries in the first two weeks," THS coach Mark Elston said. "Nothing major, just nagging injuries."
Highly touted defensive lineman Kent Fleming is nursing an injured hand, while running back Brandon Willis is tending to a sore shoulder and knee. Both players are seniors. Willis missed most of last season with a knee injury.
If the Chieftains can get past the injuries, the team should be in good shape. After going 8-2 in 2003 with a large and athletic senior class, some fans didn't expect much from last year's team. That squad, however, came back with a 9-2 season that ended with a 27-14 loss to eventual Class 4A champion Topeka-Hayden.
Gone are quarterback Ross Starcher, linebacker Kaleb Lawrence, center Daniel Workman and running backs Sam Mitchell and Zach Ditty.
Returning, however, are running back Matt Drake, fullback B.T. Fleming, lineman Kent Fleming, lineman Jeff Frank and linebacker Allen Athon, to name a few seniors.
As last year's seniors did last fall, this year's seniors will be expected to lead a team that seems to reload fairly consistently.
Although practices were slowed by heavy rain during the preseason, the team has been working under more ideal conditions this week.
Elston said that although it was hard to work on the passing game and other aspects because of muddy conditions, he wasn't completely discouraged by the weather.
"We've been fortunate," Elston said. "We've had rain and had to practice indoors.
"We've faced a bunch of elements that mentally get them prepared, not just 75 degrees and sunny."
Offensively, the Chieftains are running basically with a new backfield. Jeff Hughes and Zeb Kissinger are working at quarterback to replace scrambling quarterback Ross Starcher, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. Matt Drake and Daniel Volk move into the backfield, as does fullback B.T. Fleming, who was a starter last season before missing some games last season because of injury.
"He's running like a wild bull in a china closet," Elston said. "He's going to be a load to bring down."
Elston also likes what he sees from two running backs.
"Daniel Volk and Matt Drake have improved dramatically from where they were last year," Elston said.
Although Elston will have a new backfield this fall, he said the team's inside running game appears to be ahead of where last year's team was at this time.
On the line, Ryan Bennett is playing at center, replacing Workman from last year's squad.
"He's extremely intelligent," Elston said of Bennett. "He'll do very well. He's slimmed down from last year and is quicker and stronger."
Aaron Adcox, Phil George and Frank also anchor the offensive line, while Justin McDaniel and Chris Ridihaulgh battle for the right tackle position.
Tyler Miles, one of the team's top receivers last year, should fill that roll again.
"Tyler Miles has been catching everything in practice," Elston said.
Defensively, Elston said the team's run defense is ahead of schedule.
With Derrick Parret, Bryan Morris, Seth Lloyd and Fleming on the line, the Chieftains should be able to defend well at the line of scrimmage -- if everyone stays healthy. Along with Fleming's ailments, Morris has been playing with an injured finger.
At linebacker, Adcox and Athon return, while much of Tonganoxie's backfield can be seen in the Chieftains' secondary.
Tonganoxie was KVL co-champion in 2003 and finished second last year. Working to win the league outright could be a difficult chore this season, Elston said.
"I think it's going to be tougher than it was last year," Elston said. "Each team in our conference has the potential to be better than they were last year."
Tonganoxie will have to contend with Lansing, which started last season with losses to THS and Mill Valley before going 8-1 in its next nine games. Most of that team returns, although the Lions are without senior running back Jeff Slater, who broke his arm during competitive basketball this summer.
And then there's Mill Valley, which has been a contender each year.
"Mill Valley is Mill Valley," Elston said.
Although the Jaguars lost standout running back David Woods, they still have younger brother Justin Woods in the backfield.
With a more balanced league, it could be hard to determine a clear-cut favorite.
Two of the potential front-runners, however, will square off Friday.
Tonganoxie and Lansing will meet at 7 p.m. in Lansing.