Anna lost a lot to graduation and will be playing many new players this year. Coach Nick Marino said there’s one key as the new players get acclimated to varsity: taking it one week at a time.
“Our goals right now are to beat Indian Lake,” Marino said. “We just want to take care of business on Friday and play well, and then go week by week.”
The Rockets started 3-1 last year but struggled in the middle of the season in Midwest Athletic Conference play by dropping four consecutive games. They rebounded and won three of their next four before losing to Allen East 45-30 in a Division VI regional semifinal to finish 6-7.
All but four starters graduated on both sides of the ball. The squad will still have mostly upperclassmen as starters, but they’ll have one key underclassmen taking over in a starting role: sophomore Alex Shappie, who will play quarterback.
“He’s picked things up pretty well,” Marino said. “He’s got a pretty good arm, and we’re looking forward to what he’s able to do this year and in the future.”
Justin Richards, a senior, returns at running back and wide receiver. He scored 11 touchdowns last year and had about 1,500 all-purpose yards, including 559 yards on kickoff returns.
“We’re looking forward to seeing what he can do this year,” Marino said. “He’s a big-play threat all the time. We might utilize him in several different ways, but he’s primarily at receiver right now.”
Junior Colin Elliot also returns at receiver and looks to have more balls thrown his way.
A pair of newcomers in junior Landon Fogt and sophomore Zach Osborn will play at running back.
Senior Thaine Hamilton and junior Lane Howell are returning starters on the offensive line. Senior Colby Jeffries will take over at center, and Marino said a couple other seniors will rotate on the offensive line.
“We definitely have a good mixture of older kids and younger kids, and we’re developing,” Marino said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what these guys can do throughout the season.”
The Rockets were hit hard by graduation on the defensive line but have one starter back in senior Hayden Huelskamp, who plays at defensive end. Lane Howell will also start on the defensive line, and Marino said a few younger players will also play on the line.
Seniors Landon Blankenship and Nolan Fox are returning letterwinners at linebacker.
Chase Murray, a senior, returns as a defensive back, as does Richards. Osborn, Elliot, Aaron Shappie and Trey Heitkamp will also play at defensive back. Heitkamp started as a freshman but missed last year, and Marino said he’s a welcome return this year.
The squad’s coaching staff remains mostly the same, but two former Lehman assistants have joined the staff in Bill Zimmer and Kent Witt. Both will be co-offensive coordinators, while Tyler Wright remains as offensive coordinator. Luke Laviolette returns as defensive coordinator.
Anna will travel to Indian Lake on Friday to open the season, then will host Brookville in Week 2 before starting MAC play by hosting St. Henry in Week 3.
The Rockets edged the Lakers 24-21 last year.
“They look good,” Marino said. “They’ve got some good receivers, some good backs. They’re breaking in a new quarterback, but it looks like they’re doing a good job. They look like they’re sound on defense and run the ball well. They do the things it takes to be a good team.”
Minster struggled to a 1-9 record in Seth Whiting’s first year as coach but has nine starters back on both sides of the ball.
“Excited to go watch my guys compete,” Whiting. “We are really young and will no doubt have our fair share of growing pains, but these kids are fighters and they are ready to go to work.
“We have to do the best we can to stay as healthy as possible. We cannot afford to go through the injury bug like we did last year.”
The squad has three starters back who were injured the first few weeks of the season: senior tight end/defensive end Brady Wolf, junior running back/linebacker Justin Bergman and wide receiver/defensive back Dylan Heitkamp.
“I’m excited to see them back on the field, along with a lot of other young guys and first-year varsity players,” Whiting said.
The Wildcats return sophomore quarterback Brogan Stephey, who threw for 1,427 yards and six TDs with 10 interceptions last year. He also ran for a team-high 353 yards and nine TDs.
Senior receivers Devan Wuebker and Chase Couse also return. Wuebker caught 21 passes for 319 yards and two TDs last year while Couse caught 15 passes for 231 yards and one TD.
Senior receiver/QB James Niemeyer also returns, as does sophomore RB/receiver Connor Schmiesing. Sophomore Will Frimel is back at running back.
Three offensive linemen return in juniors Fletcher Luthman (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and Chad Schulze (6-1, 285) and senior Nick Winner (6-0, 265). Frimel (5-10, 215) returns at defensive tackle and Charlie Schmiesing (6-2, 205) returns at defensive end.
James Boehlein returns at middle linebacker. He led the squad with 34.5 tackles last year. Also back at linebacker are sophomores Gabe Barhorst and Isaac Larger.
Several defensive backs return in Niemeyer, Schmiesing, Wuebker and Couse. Wuebker made 32 tackles last year while Couse made 29, Schmiesing made 27 and Niemeyer made 26. Couse, Schmiesing and Niemeyer each intercepted two passes, and Niemeyer also recovered two fumbles.
Minster is scheduled to open the season at Fort Loramie and to host Graham in Week 2 before starting MAC play by traveling to Marion Local in Week 3.
Whiting said while the team is still young, they have a great work ethic.
“This is a great group of young men to coach,” Whiting said. “They worked hard all offseason to get themselves ready to compete this year.”