MONTICELLO — An undersized Sages football team used a speed-led defense to pitch three shutouts in six contests during the abbreviated spring season, and held opponents to just 34 points overall.
With key competitors lost to graduation, especially from that strong defense, Coach Cully Welter is looking for those stepping into starting roles to use their smarts, speed and conditioning to do the same this fall.
“A key will be how we overcome a lack of size. The kids last year did great. You hate to say it always comes down to grit and determination, but it’s going to be a big asset for us. Our toughness is going to tell the tale,” Welter said.
The Sages — coming off a perfect 6-0 campaign — will be tested early in their opener Friday, as they hit the road to battle conference rival St. Joseph-Ogden.
While the defense finds its footing, the offense is in good hands with senior quarterback Joey Sprinkle, who threw for 886 yards and 16 touchdowns and just one interception in the spring. He helped turn MHS from a run-oriented squad at the start of the season to one that relied on his right arm to score 207 points for the season, and at least 40 points in each of its final four contests.
“Joey’s got a cannon for an arm. if he can continue to improve his accuracy, we’ve got receivers,” said his coach.
One of those receivers is Triston Foran, an all-conference wideout who hauled in 15 catches for 242 yards and four touchdowns last season.
In the backfield, the speedy Jackob Tackett, a top-10 finisher in the 100 meter dash at the state meet this year, will be relied on to carry the ball.
There are good numbers out for this year’s team: A total of 73 players, the most in Welter’s storied career at Monticello that includes a state title in 2018. But with 50 on the roster being freshman and sophomores, he will rely on the 23 juniors and seniors to anchor the team, at least in the early going.
“We’re still figuring out which sophomores will be able to help,” he said.
While post-season is in play once again after no playoffs in the spring, Welter said and his roster learned some things about enjoying the season.
“I think sometimes we get too fixated on that part (the playoffs), and that’s one thing I really enjoyed about last spring was, just the chance to play meant a lot to them, and that’s kind of why you do it,” Welter said.
“So sometimes you get too fixed on the post-season and less on the games.”
Welter admits his squad last season surprised him.
“Realistically, I didn’t think we were a 6-0 team, so I give the kids a lot of credit for achieving that.”
The squad got stronger and more conficent as the season went on. After close wins of 20-7 and 19-15 over Rantoul and Prairie Central, no opponent got closer to 30 points when the final scores were posted.
Be sure Welter will be trying to win every game this season, which is bookended to St. Joseph in week 1 and a strong Unity team in week 9.
But it might not be easy.
“We lost some physical, fast players that will be hard to replace,” he said. “We’re going to rely on grit and determination again.”
Some of the key losses include fullback and defensive standout Kolton Knuffman, running back Chris Brown, defensive back Jason Brown, and receiver Hayden Graham, who led the team with 293 yards receiving.
This year, another key returnee is Kaleb Reid, a senior who will be starting for a third straight year on both sides of the line.
Freshmen — Braxton Tharp, Quan Nguyen, Russ Brown, Jack Helms, Carter Foran, Matt Swartz, Connor Kuntz, Tyler Blythe, Isaiah Ducker, Brian Wiltgen, David Norfleet, Ike Young, Colten Vance, Hunter romano, Eric Arnold, Evan Wassom, Sam Burse, Joey Van Vleet, Ryan Frazee, Brody Billedo, Trey Leynes, Alex Persohn, Mason High, Cole Freeman, Bryan Coon
Sophomores — Trey Welter, Tristan Slade, Raiden Colbert, Gavin Ridings, Jacob Long, Jack Weidner, Charlie Dill, Luke Teschke, Nick Persohn, Colin Sheppard, Dawson Sheets, Caden Murphy, Josh Kirkum, Charlie Moore, Myles VonBehren, Jeremiah Wenke, A.J. Allen, Wyatt Vaughan, Quentin Shore, Rich Wilson, Brandon Peters, Luke Kappes, Wade Uebinger, Cole Sowinski
Juniors — Spencer Mitze, Drew Sheppard, Wade Carroll, Preston Bettinger, Blake McDuffie, Tyler Bundy, Gus Jarvis, Cody Daily, Jack Brown, Riley Jones, Garrett Clark
Seniors — Joey Sprinkle, Triston Foran, Peyton Scott, Thomas Swartz, Tyler Hogan, Wyatt Kenyon, Cal Spence, Jackob Tackett, Ethan Alexander, Ashton Wassom, Kaleb Reid, Lucas Courson, Jacob Helms
Team captains — Lucas Courston, Tristan Foran, Joey Sprinkle, Jacob Tackett
Coaches — Cullen Welter, Steve Kirk, Michael Allen, Chris Jones, Ryan Woodham, Doug Smith, Drew Wagers, Willie High, Caleb Hansen, Don Billedo