WARRENSBURG — New Warrensburg-Latham football coach Aaron Fricke has some rather large cleats to fill.
The Cardinals graduated their star quarterback and running back, Dionte and Diondre Lewis, who combined for 2,038 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground during the regular season last year. Dionte threw another 14 touchdowns passes and the Lewis twins, who will be playing for Millikin University in the fall, led Warrensburg to back-to-back playoff appearances.
But the Cardinals' offensive-minded coach is certain the team can continue its winning ways.
"I think there’s a lot of expectation out there to sustain success and that’s what we are aiming at right now," Fricke said. "They lost some pretty good pieces and everybody knows that, but what we have is 16 starters returning.
"We want to keep the ball rolling and that’s been the goal — to not take a step back and we are going to have a few more people who are going to have to step up."
Two players taking that step up are senior Mitchell Leathers and junior Nathaniel Hayes, who are battling to be the starting quarterback.
"I think the offense is going to have to change," Fricke said. "We don’t have the guys in the backfield that are going to take it for an 80-yard touchdown on a broken play.
"But we do have a quarterback that’s going to be a junior (Hayes) who has a very strong arm, and then he is competing with Mitchell Leathers who is probably our best returning offensive weapon.
"The best positive about it is that our offensive line is very strong. It is senior-led and they are big, but they can move around."
Each quarterback contender brings a slightly different set of skills to the table.
"Mitchell is obviously is the better runner — he played receiver and we gave him the ball on reverses last year and he could stretch the field. All of those things you want in a receiver," Fricke said. "Nate has the arm definitely. He can make all the throws. But he hasn’t started a varsity football game yet and so he still has some raw things he needs to work on.
"So it comes down to experience versus arm strength but either way we go the guy that doesn’t win the job is probably going to end up starting somewhere else anyways. We just need to figure out which one belongs at quarterback."
The competition will continue through this week's camp but Fricke has an idea of what he hopes to see.
"We are going to wait and see how camp goes and hopefully when we start August we will have our depth chart in place. I kind of know the way I want it to go but it is a good competition. It's good for both of them," he said.
Not the only one
There's another Central Illinois Conference team with a quarterback competition — Central A&M.
With the graduation of Jameson Smith, the Raiders are searching. Juniors Connor Heaton and Bryson Burgener, along with freshman James Paradee, are the candidates.
"We'll see what happens there," Heaton said. "But no matter who starts, we're looking pretty good. We lost a good class of seniors, but our class has always played well together."
As a coach getting to know his team, Fricke, a Lincoln graduate who previously coached at Piasa Southwestern in the South Central Conference, has been pleased by the Cardinals talent level and mindset.
"I would say the biggest surprise for me is that I came from a 3A in high school and I see that Warrensburg is 1A and I didn’t expect there to be as much talent as I think we have," Fricke said. "Obviously we don’t have a ton of depth — we have about 40 to 45 kids out — but there is talent across the board.
"(Warrensburg) is a team that has been to the dance twice and has higher expectations. The biggest difference is that these kids already believe that they can win. Whereas you don't have to come in and change that culture, these kids already believe that they have a shot in every single game so we are already ahead of the game in that regard."
In building the Cardinals' defense, Fricke compliments former Warrensburg coach Scott Godfrey in evaluating talent.
"One of the first things I noticed when we took over was that it's been a very well-coached group," Fricke said. "Coach Godfrey was very good at organizing their defense because from what you see on films they are able to do a lot of different things because there are a lot of smart guys out there."
Fricke said the Warrensburg linebackers stand out, especially Davis Brumbaugh and Will Kent.
"(Brumbaugh) was one of their studs last year and Will Kent at outside linebackers — they are two of the best linebackers that I’ve ever been around," Fricke said. "With all those starters coming back I’m looking forward to seeing what those guys do."
Finding the line
Bulldogs coach Mark Ramsey said in each of his first two seasons as St. Teresa coach, he had five linemen he knew would be the starters on offense, and a solid backup at both guard and tackle.
This year will be much different.
Ramsey said he has 11 or 12 players all of comparable skill fighting for the five offensive line spots.
“We don’t have anyone like we’ve had the last couple years in Beau Branyan where you say, ‘OK, that’s our butt-kicker,’” Ramsey said. “We have guys working with the ones now who might not be the guys working with the ones when the season starts.”
But, Ramsey said, all that depth will allow the Bulldogs to have two starters at defensive tackle who won’t have to play on offense.
While the starters on the line have yet to be decided, St. Teresa’s skill positions are filled by returning players who have already proven themselves on the varsity stage — senior running back Jacardia Wright, senior receivers Tyler Phillips and Stanley Rodgers, junior receiver Michael Less, and junior quarterback Jack Hogan are all back.