Eyes of the storm
Tonganoxie set to defend Kaw Valley League championship
Mark Elston has coached the Tonganoxie High football team since 2000. Never has he started a freshman quarterback -- until now.
Jeremy Carlisle will be the first freshman to start at quarterback in the Elston era when Tonganoxie travels Friday to Lansing for its season opener. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
"Jeremy is extremely mature for a freshman," Elston said. "We've never had a freshman capable of starting. He's grown up around athletics and understands what needs to be done."
What needs to be done at Tonganoxie is no easy feat. The Chieftains went 8-2 last year and won the Kaw Valley League title. They've won the KVL in three of the past four years.
Elston is 49-21 entering his eighth season. He's never had a losing record at THS.
"Our bar is set to win a league title every year," Elston said. "No matter what, we expect to be in the playoffs and be in the hunt for postseason games every year."
THS will have a different look this year with respect to personnel. Senior fullback Kevin Gill, a second-team all conference selection in 2006, provides the most experience offensively and he only started four games last year.
Furthermore, the plan is for only two players -- Gabe Belobrajdic (wide receiver/tight end and defensive end) and Zack Robinson (running back/linebacker) -- to play on both sides of the ball for the entire year.
"We don't have kids right now capable of going 120 plays full tilt," Elston said. "They could play 120 plays, but we'd get a huge dropoff in the third and fourth quarters. If we want to go further in the playoffs, we have to have more kids ready to play in November."
The other differing aspect about this season has been injuries. Elston said 16 starters sat out of practice on Aug. 22 because of injuries.
D.J. Gray (ear infections), Chance Rawlins (blood pressure problems) and Isiah Sawyer (hip pointer) are questionable for Week 1. Shawn Roberts (arm) and Drew Scates (foot) might return for Week 2. A.J. Demaranville (wrist) might miss half the season. Dylan Scates (broken collarbone) is likely out for the season.
Sophomore quarterback John Emery sustained a back injury earlier in the summer. The injury would have forced Emery to miss some time, but the sophomore turned in his equipment to THS coaches earlier in the month. He won't be a part of the team this season.
The offense will start with Carlisle, who played running back in junior high.
"I've had a complete blast out here," said Carlisle, who transferred from Baxter Springs. "It's just amazing. I love it. I'm pretty comfortable so far. I just have to get my footing and reads right."
Carlisle said it took him until last week to get fully acclimated to the offense. He still studies the playbook on a nightly basis.
"I have to study all the routes every night," Carlisle said. "I study every night for about 15 to 20 minutes just to get used to everything."
Before the season, Carlisle said he expected to be a running back. He had no idea he'd be getting this much playing time.
"He has lightning-quick feet," Elston said of Carlisle. "He can throw the ball well on the run. He does not let mistakes bother him. Sometimes, he goes 140 miles per hour and we have to slow him down on things. No matter how you cut it, he's still a puppy back there."
The Chieftains will employ a running back-by-committee this season, with Gill, senior D.J. Gray and junior Zack Robinson. Gill had 464 yards rushing on 82 carries (5.65 average) last season.
The starting wide receiver jobs are up for grabs, according to Elston. Tonganoxie's two leading receivers from last year -- Tyler Miles and Zeb Kissinger -- graduated.
Tonganoxie has four offensive linemen battling injuries, in Scates, Demaranville, Rawlins and Roberts. The first three names from that list are seniors. Tonganoxie also has other senior offensive linemen, including Josh Drake, Tyler Henderson and Tyler Gurss.
As a unit, the Chieftains will have to replace five first-team all-conference players from last year.
Senior Cameron Adcox, a starter in 2006, will be the leader of the defensive line this season.
"He's a big, strong kid that can really eat up some space," Elston said of Adcox. "It's probably going to require a double team to get him moved out of there, so that will help our linebacking corps."
The likely leader of the linebackers will be senior Wes Armstrong, an honorable mention all-conference selection last season. Matt Ditty also will provide senior leadership at the position.
Elston said the secondary would be an ongoing battle for who gets to start. Likely candidates include seniors Jared Lamb, Isiah Sawyer and Chris Wallace, and sophomores D.J. Lindsey and Preston Puthoff.
Belobrajdic will serve as the Chieftains' punter in 2007. The kicking duties are between Adcox and senior Erick Lowe, who plays goalkeeper for the boys soccer team.
Elston indicated much of the special teams units would comprise young athletes, primarily sophomores.
"These are primarily guys who shave once every two months," Elston said. "They could all probably share the same razor, too. Being a part of special teams is going to be a learning process for them."