NEWTON — Following the completion of his team's 9-2 season last year, Newton coach Jason Fulton could have put out up a sign "Wanted: Offensive line."
The Eagles are 50-7 the last five years, but could struggle to reach those heights while replacing their entire offensive line.
Fulton, though, has been pleased with what he's seen from the newcomers. He said the Eagles would likely start a senior, two juniors and two sophomores.
"I have been happy with the progression of the offense line knowing we have graduated five seniors and we are bringing in some young guys," Fulton said. "It’s still a work in progress and they have a long way to go, but we have been pretty pleased with the progression of it right now."
In developing those younger players, Newton has an advantage with the close proximity between the junior and senior high schools.
"The nice thing about it is that the junior high is in the same building as the high school and so you kind of get to know those kids a little bit and see them in the hallway," Fulton said. "In the wintertime we bring the eighth graders in and they start lifting with us right after the Christmas break. In the first weeks of January we get them acclimated with the weight room, start working on technique and form and just trying to teach them how to lift."
While the offensive line is a work in progress, the Eagles defense is more stable. Defensive end Bryce Hance, defensive tackle Teddy Frichtl and linebackers Dawson Phillips, Adam Bridges and Connor Bierman.
"Defensively we bring back a lot of guys and it should be one of our strengths," Fulton said. "All three of those linebackers started last year and played a lot and were a huge part of what we were trying to get accomplished."
Maroa-Forsyth finished its summer activities on July 21. Six years ago, Maroa coach Josh Jostes added a week off on top of the official IHSA “dead week” before the start of football practice on Aug. 6.
“Probably 90 percent of our kids take their vacations then,” Jostes said. “I can’t tell our families when to take their vacations — if their jobs say they have to take it the first week of June, that’s the way it is — but most of our kids are able to use those last two weeks before practice and don’t miss much.”
The time off is the only two weeks of the year the Maroa weight room isn’t open to football players, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t still working out.
“Our five captains on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays get together from 5 to 6 o’clock at the park, and if you’re still in town, you better be at the captain’s workout — it’s totally organized by the players,” Jostes said.
Jostes said Maroa players also have a free two-week membership to Club Fitness of Decatur during those two weeks away from the high school’s facilities.
Much of Jeb Odam’s early success at Taylorville came with smashmouth teams that ran the ball and played stout defense.
The Tornadoes will still run the ball and play good defense, just with a different style.
“We’re not very big, but we’re quick, so the key for us is tempo and keeping defenses on their heels,” Odam said. “I think we’ll create a lot of chaos on defense.”
Odam said he likes the challenge of adapting to different styles.
“That’s part of the fun,” Odam said. “ It’s chess game, both in-game and in preparing for the season. When you sit back in December and look at the team, you might say, ‘We can’t do heavy inside zone like we did last year,’ but we can do this instead.”
Reload, not rebuild
Tuscola graduated 12 seniors from last year's Class 1A second-place team, but coach Andy Romine has the program primed and ready to reload.
"Every single year in a great program you are going to turn over some seniors, but if you have the right approach and you are developing a program and not a season there should be kids set to make the move," he said. "Are we going to have a left tackle like (Tuscola graduate and Oklahoma State University offensive lineman) Hunter Woodard? Probably not, But we will have a dang good left tackle because we will have a kid who has waited his turn and has gotten better because of what Hunter did and he will be ready to put his stamp on it."
Romine said he's particularly excited about his defensive squad this year. Brayden VonLanken returns on the line, Will Little and Logan Tabeling at linebacker, and Cade Kresin and Gage Russell in the secondary.
"If you look at our team, our defensive line stands to be the strongest," Romine said. "Brayden VonLanken, he’s probably the guy who is set to anchor our defensive line."
Don't look back
One thing Tuscola didn't do this summer is watch the Classa 1A title game from last season — a 21-20 loss to Lena-Winslow. At least as a team.
"That game will never be watched by our football team unless we played (Lena-Winslow) again in the very very near future," Romine said. "I’ve watched that film more than anybody in the state because if you don’t use it to get better, you have failed your kids, you have failed your program. But I would bet you this, too: Football is important to our kids and I know every one of them has watched it over and over and over again and gone over it with a fine tooth comb."
Romine said he redirects the players' worry about winning a state title into investing in the program and the process.
"We don’t talk about winning," Romine said. "They hear about the process, they hear about the things that we emphasize daily to improve, they hear about culture, they hear about work ethic, they hear about doing things the right way.
"We think that with all the things that we focus on, it kind of takes care of itself. Our kids genuinely hurt when we get beat. It’s just hard to really not have something come to fruition when you have worked so hard at it but then there is great value in the lessons that come from that as well I think."
Sluder said he agrees that the team should move forward and not dwell on the loss at state.
"This is a whole new year, we lost a lot of people but we can’t look back on the state game," he said. "We can’t look back at that as a bad thing. This is a whole new season. Tell the people to look out for the Warriors because we are coming back."
The Herald & Review's Justin Conn contributed to this story.