Facing tough schedule, experienced Bulldogs are up to the challenge

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Members of the MFL MarMac football team include (front, left to right) Michael Knickerbocker, Hunter Meyer, Collin Henkels, Callum Johnson, Chauncy Drahn, Kaden Stocker, Gabe McGeough, Cullen McShane, Caleb Mezera, Josh Reichard; (second row) Sam Frailey, Tyler Zuercher, Bryce Diehl, Cayl Anderson, Taylor Herzmann, Wyatt Powell, Kyle Tilson, Brandon Christofferson, Austin Schaller, Aiden Schoulte; (third row) Carver Blietz-Bentien, Austin Schlee, Kade McElwaine, Drew Earles, Corbin McElwaine, Jonah Wille, Uriah Duffield, Cole Allert, Brayden Gordon; (fourth row) James Waterman, Kade Humble, Brock Hackett, Elias Hatt, Bryce Radloff, Holden Mathis, Quinn McGeough, Jaron Wille, Carter Stoddard; (fifth row) managers Danta Wood and Abe Hanson, Izayah Streicher, Carter Streicher, Keith Anderson, Dalton Krause, Tristen Koehn, Karter Decker, managers Michael Balster and Ajla Hamzagic; (back) assistant coaches Brandon Burke, Luke Arenz, Nelson Converse, Paul Gordon, Ryan Pomerening, Kyle Kirkestue and Jake Wilke and head coach Dan Anderson. Not pictured are managers Jaxton Schroeder and Cayden Pester. (Photo courtesy of Blaker Photography)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


With nine defensive starters and eight offensive starters returning from a squad that went 9-2 a season ago and won the school’s second straight district title, expectations are high for the MFL MarMac football team. 


“The guys we lost were key guys, but we have guys to step in and replace them. Any time you can come back and have that many returning starters, you have to feel pretty good,” said head coach Dan Anderson. “After our first practice this year, we thought we were three weeks ahead of schedule where we were last year.”


Anderson credits part of that with the offseason work by both the players and coaches. He and his assistant coaches spent time talking to some of the best high school and college programs in the country who run similar offenses and defenses to MFL MarMac.


“We’re just trying to get better at what we do,” Anderson said. “We worked harder because we knew what we had coming back.”


Assistant Kyle Kirkestue also implemented a speed and agility program the players have bought into.


“Not only are we bigger and stronger, but we’re also a lot quicker than we have been,” Anderson explained. “All the good programs get in the weight room, but the really elite programs put in a speed program to go with it.”


That will be especially important defensively, as players make up for lack of size with physicality and speed.


“The way we play our defense, we can play with undersized guys and are just extremely quick to the ball, which makes it difficult for offenses to get big plays. It’s about speed and slanting and lining head up on those offensive linemen so they don’t know which way you’re going,” said Anderson.


MFL MarMac returns all its defensive linemen and linebackers, including all state pick and district defensive MVP Cullen McShane, a senior. “All four linebackers were either all state or all district last year,” said Anderson, referencing McShane, senior Gabe McGeough, junior Austin Schlee and sophomore Wyatt Powell. Safety Karter Decker was also an all state and district selection a year ago (as a kick returner), as was senior Kaden Stocker at corner. 


Among state leaders in interceptions and fumble recoveries last year, the Bulldogs were known for making plays happen. Anderson said the team may change its philosophy a bit, though.


“We may try to bring a little more heat and get some sacks on quarterback this year because we’ve got a younger secondary. We don’t want the offense to sit back and have as much time to throw the ball,” he noted.


“The defensive backs we have are physical guys. They are like linebackers in that they hit and tackle well,” Anderson added. “They’ve never gotten any varsity experience back there, except Kaden Stocker, so we may have to adjust how we play coverages a bit, but the guys are working extremely hard and I’m confident we’ll get things figured out.”


Offensively, MFL MarMac will be led by a deep backfield, including 1,000-yard rushers McShane and McGeough, who combined for over 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns a season ago.


“Both of them worked in the weight room and got bigger and stronger,” Anderson said.


That will be paired with the speed of Decker, who is the first Bulldog player to run under a 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash.


“When you put together Gabe and Cullen, who are veterans, and then a guy as fast as Karter running counters like that, it’s a lot to try to defend,” said Anderson. “Last year, we had two 1,000-yard rushers. This year, hopefully we have three.”


The depth doesn’t end there. Powell will see snaps this year, as will fellow sophomore Bryce Radloff and junior Cole Allert, giving the Bulldogs six quality options. When not carrying the ball, Anderson said the other backs are valuable blockers and fakers.


“We share the football, which keeps our guys healthier, gets more kids involved and makes us harder to defend. I don’t care who scores touchdowns, as long as we’re scoring touchdowns,” he said.


That veteran rushing attack will be important as MFL MarMac transitions to first-year quarterback Carver Blietz-Bentien, a sophomore. 


“When you’ve got backs like that, they know the footwork and can teach the younger guys. They’re not selfish. That instills confidence in everybody,” Anderson quipped. “We won’t have to rely a whole lot on our quarterback, at least early in the season, to win ballgames for us. But if that happens, we’re very confident in Carver. He has all the tools. He’s big and strong for a sophomore, and has an extremely strong arm. For him, it’s more learning the offense. We can’t make things too complicated right away.”


Blietz-Bentien’s receiving weapons will include Stocker as well as sophomore Brandon Christofferson. Schlee has moved to tight end and will share time with sophomore Kade McElwaine. 


“Of every position, tight end is the most highly contested. They both have excellent hands, can run really well and are excellent blockers,” Anderson noted.


Another key strength of the offense is the line. Four out of five players, including senior Chauncy Drahn and junior Josh Reichard—both all district selections—and juniors Corbin McElwaine and Hunter Meyer, started varsity games last season.


“Last year, we returned zero offensive linemen who’d started, and we had some growing pains early. We found ways to win anyway, playing better defense and special teams was really good. This year, most of those guys are back, and they seem like they’re a lot farther along. They all got bigger and worked hard in the weight room. Josh Reichard looks like a first team all stater to me right now, and is going to pave the way,” said Anderson.


The fifth spot, according to coach, could be filled by junior Taylor Herzmann, sophomore Bryce Diehl or freshman Aiden Schoulte. 


The entire offensive line group has been mixing and matching, learning more than one position.


“Then, if someone goes down, we feel like we’ve got really quality guys,” Anderson said.


On special teams, Decker, an all state returner, will serve as the team’s main kickoff threat. McShane will also handle kickoffs, and field punt returns with McGeough. Additionally, McShane will serve as the Bulldogs’ punter and take on kickoff duties, while junior Jonah Wille will be the kicker.


“Jonah Wille has been doing most of our kicking and is looking better all the time,” said Anderson. “We may go for two at times, depending on the situation.”


With MFL MarMac moving up a class, to Class 1A, and facing the hardest football schedule he’s seen in 20 years, Anderson expects the team to play a lot of close games. In the Bulldogs’ District 4, they, along with Beckman Catholic - Dyersville, Cascade - Western Dubuque and Columbus Catholic - Waterloo, were all either outright district champions or shared a district title last year. 


“I haven’t looked through every district in other classes, but I don’t think there’s another district in the state of Iowa that is as top heavy with great football teams as ours. That boggles my mind that all those teams are together,” he shared. “Whoever comes out of the district as the number one team is going to be battle tested and ready to go with whatever the state throws at you in the playoffs. Our non-district schedule is going to be tough too.”


“It’s a gauntlet,” he added, “but the kids are up to the challenge. We want to be the team. The guys believe they are champions.”


The Bulldogs will start their season this Friday, Aug. 27, hosting New Hampton in a non-district match-up.

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