TERRE HAUTE —
Despite returning only four starters from last year’s 11-1 team, the Casey Warriors football team could still be the class of the two-part Little Illini Conference in 2013.
Quarterback Nicco Stepina has at least one Division I offer (Illinois State), and coach Jim Sullivan said the rest of the new varsity starters are hungry to prove themselves.
“They’ve been behind some good groups. Now they get the chance to be the feature players. That’s how they see this season. We don’t believe tradition graduates,” said Sullivan, who enters his second year coaching a program that has had seven seasons with just one loss since 2004.
Marshall and Robinson — members of the Little Illini Egyptian Conference — will be among the teams trying to upset the Warriors, heavy favorites of the Little Illini Eastern, in 2013.
Following are a look at the above teams as well as Paris, in its final year of Apollo Conference membership before joining its Highway 1 rivals in the one 10-team Little Illini Conference in 2014.
• Casey — Stepina, who runs a 4.40-second time in the 40-yard dash, passed for 1,000 yards and ran for 800 as a junior last season while directing the Warriors’ spread system.
“He’s probably one of better athletes in small-school football in all of Illinois,” Sullivan said. “He’s the first one in the weight room and last one out. He knows the offense inside out. He’ll be a huge part of our success this year.”
The Warriors return between 15 and 20 lettermen, Sullivan said.
Senior Zack Murphy (6-1, 190), junior Ethan Williams (5-7, 150) and senior Austin Glidewell (5-7, 160) will also get carries out of the backfield.
Murphy, a four-year letterman, and Glidewell, will be big contributors. Both are among the co-captains for the Warriors and should good large portion of the team’s carries.
“Murphy’s a been a leader for us and could play anywhere. Glidewell will be a smaller kid, 5-7, 160 pounds but fairly good quickness, good strength and good pad level,” Sullivan said of Glidewell.
Center Jordan Brandenburg (6-2, 250) leads a Warrior offensive line that will include Colton Sewell (6-2, 190) and Dustin Weger (5-10, 220) at the tackle spots and Parker Buenzil (6-4, 340) and Jake Mason (6-2, 290) at guard.
On the outside at receiver will be four returning lettermen: Sam Huisinga (6-3, 155), Ethan Blankenship (6-2, 180), A.J. McNeil (5-11, 170) and Corey Carver (6-4, 190).
Defensively, Glidewell and Murphy are the captains at linebacker, with a total of about 18 guys likely to see the field.
Weger joins those two at middle linebacker, while Brandenburg plays one defensive end spot. Corey Carver and Brett Currey will battle for time at the other end.
Bryor Wilson (6-0, 360) and Bryce Currey (5-11, 220) will hold down the defensive tackle spots. Murphy plays strong safety opposite McNeil, while Huisinga is joined at cornerback by Dylan Lawrence (6-0, 160).
Sullivan is confident the Warriors will be determined to succeed. Casey opens up against a tough Olney squad. A battle with Robinson, which made the playoffs for the third time in the past four years in 2012, awaits in week 8.
“These kids feel like it’s their turn to step up and to play. That’s how they’re looking at the season. They’ve had success at all the levels they’ve played,” Sullivan said.
• Marshall — The Lions are in transition with a young squad after winning just one game in 2012.
“We’re very young. Our JV went 6-3. Late in the season a lot of those guys came up we had so many injuries. We’ll be playing a lot of sophomores and juniors. We’ve got a 46-man roster with 13 guys injured. We’re just very young, inexperienced, but there is a lot of potential talent,” coach Todd Evers said.
The Lions’ no-huddle, spread offense is led by quarterback Travis Adams, a 5-10, 170-pound sophomore.
“He played running back for us last year by necessity. He runs the ball well, he makes good reads. He’s still in the process of mastering our system,” Evers said.
Slot receiver Nick Scott (5-9, 170) has worked hard to improve to become one of the top targets going into the season for Lions.
“He was a fresh/soph guy last year. He’s progressed the best out of all of our receivers. He’s still got a ways to go,” Evers said.
Derek Davidson (6-2, 200) is another of Adams’ top targets, while also serving as backup quarterback.
“He’s a smart football player and very talented,” Evers said.
Carrying the ball will be Chad Leitch (5-9, 155) and junior Taylor Padgett (5-7, 185).
“Both are hard-nosed, downhill runners, decent blockers and both are very smart,” Evers said.
Evers likes the depth on his offensive line, and many of those linemen will play on the defensive line as well.
Senior Zack Tharp (5-11, 215) and Adams will be leaders on the defense from their linebacker spots. Carter Liken gives the Lions decent speed in the defensive backfield.
“We need guys flying to the ball, using our speed,” Evers said. “It’s a consistent speed. We’ve got a lot of guys that are about the same speed.”
The Lions open tonight against St. Joseph-Ogden before playing Cumberland of the
“It’s not an ideal team to start with. They’re a perennial playoff team, but you find out where you stand.”
• Paris — Coach Mike Brouwer and the Tigers give it one more go in the Apollo Conference this season with a veteran group of players.
Quarterback Riley Spencer (6-2, 195) returns under center after throwing for more than 1,200 yards last year.
“He’s got a good arm and gotten stronger. We’re looking for him to do some more running,” Brouwer said.
The Tigers will need more offensive firepower to improve on a 2-7 record in 2012. Fullback Hunter Morris (5-10, 195) will try to free up halfbacks Denver Brewer (6-0, 165) and Xavier Holt (5-7, 150).
Holt will be one of Spencer’s key targets at receiver, where Audie Temples (5-9, 175) led the team with 29 catches for 450 yards last fall. Logan McDaniel (5-8, 165) will be another receiving threat, and Jason Willmoth (6-3, 170) will play tight end.
Up front, Thrischon Mullenix (5-9, 220) will line up at center and is flanked by Shane Mason (5-10, 200) and Elliott Kauffman (6-0, 205) at guard and Kenvin Nguyen (5-10, 245) and Cam Malone (6-3, 240) at tackle.
“They’ve worked hard this summer. We don’t have much depth so a lot of them will be playing both ways,” Brouwer said.
Offensively, there is potential for a strong season.
“We’re looking more balanced, last year threw for more than we ran it for. This year we look to use our FB more in the offense. Depending on if Riley’s healthy, probably more passing than running, spread it to the backs,” Brouwer said.
The defense will be led up front by Malone, Kauffman and Nguyen along with Drew Wiseman (6-1, 210).
Linebackers Spencer McDaniel, Mason, Morris and Willmoth will be keys to the defense. Brewer and Holt will play cornerback, while Temples is the safety. Senior Thomas Blanford will see action as well.
“We have high expectations this year. This is the last year in the Apollo, we’d like to leave it as champions. It’d be a tough task to achieve, but I think our kids are willing and capable of getting it done,” Brouwer said. “
The improvement will have to come defensively as well.
“Defensively, we struggled last year more than anything,” Brouwer said. “We gave up more big plays than we wanted to. More experience, 4 or 5 of the seniors will be 3-year starters. Hoping that turns into big plays for us. We didn’t create a lot of turnovers.”