The Wawasee Warriors open the 2014 high school football season Aug. 22 at Whitko. Photo by Anthony Gadson, Times-Union
The Wawasee Warriors open the 2014 high school football season Aug. 22 at Whitko. Photo by Anthony Gadson, Times-Union
SYRACUSE — Second-year Wawasee head football coach Josh Ekovich is hoping his team picks up right where it left off last year.
After winning just one of their first four games, the Wawasee Warriors went on to win four of their next six, with the losses being a slim 14-13 setback at Warsaw and 35-7 home defeat to Leo in the first round of the sectional.
With 17 seniors featured on this year’s 50-man roster, highlighted by the dynamic duo of quarterback Gage Reinhard and wide receiver Clayton Cook, Ekovich feels he has the experience needed to build on a 5-5 campaign.
“This senior class has really embraced the fact that this is their team,” he said. “They've embraced the fact that they've got some pretty good athletes – outside of Gage and Clayton. Mylon Betts comes to mind. He's dynamic in the slot and we can put him at running back. Nic Wilson is going to be good for us. We've got two guys that came back out this year in J.J. Gilmer and Austin Rhodes. They're going to do big things for us.”
Of all the seniors, none will be bigger than the tandem of Reinhard and Cook.
As juniors, Reinhard completed 135 of 229 pass attempts for 1,976 yards and 19 touchdowns, while Cook caught 47 of those passes for 783 yards and nine touchdowns.
“They've been a big part of the success that we've had the previous two years,” Ekovich said. “As sophomores, they played in a sectional championship (game against Concord). Last year, they were a vital part of turning things around halfway through the season, after we started off 1-3. They're definitely going to be a big part of the offense.”
Receiver Sam Clark also put up big numbers last year, catching 22 passes for 327 yards and four scores. The aerial attack will be good, and Ekovich believes the running game will be too, despite graduating leading rusher Brandin McCulloch, who averaged 78 yards per game.
This year, Wilson will lead the ground attack, with Betts and Nathan Katzer also getting some touches.
“Nic actually went into the season last year as our starter, but Brandin McCulloch just progressed a little better, so he ended up getting a lot of carries,” Ekovich said. "When we look back at film, the times Nic was in the game, he was getting three, four, five yards. It was just that he was a little bit smaller and slower, and he just didn't grasp the game as much. At practice, he's running extremely hard.”
On the line, Wawasee will rely on Brock Spangle (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), Austin Pearish (6-3, 250), Harrison Shortill (6-0, 250) and Hunter Jones (6-6, 215) to go both ways, although that could change.
“Our offensive line is moving over the defensive line, but there's a lot of guys that could be getting a lot of playing time and starting by Week 3,” Ekovich said. “It's just that they're seniors that know the game a little bit better.”
Among the rotation guys on the defensive line are Austin Rhodes (6-1, 190), Jon Walker (6-0, 215) and Cam Adams (6-1, 225).
Running a 4-2-5 defensive scheme, the Warriors routinely use linebackers as safeties, and seem to have plenty of depth in the secondary.
“Katzer played a lot for us last year,” Ekovich said. “He's going to move into strong safety. Cameron Krizman has done a great job and progressed amazingly. He came out in track and got a lot faster. He's a little thicker than he was last year and he's communicating well, so he's going to do well for us at free (safety), as well as Clayton and Gage. We also have Sam Rookstool that can play some strong safety, and Nic Wilson. Even though they're typically linebackers, in certain defenses, we roll up our safeties.”
Having your star quarterback playing defense can always be a bit nerve-racking, but Ekovich says it's been hard to keep the 6-2, 170-pound Reinhard off the field.
“The biggest hit we had (at a recent practice) was when he came up and lit up a junior,” Ekovich said. “He came down the alley and put a kid on his back. He's an athlete and he's tough. He wants to run the ball. He wants to play defense."
Also in the secondary, Curtis Liston and Clark will be at the cornerback positions, with Gilmer and Betts vying for time as well.
Rookstool and Wilson will rotate into some safety positions from time to time, but are listed as linebackers, as are three-year starter Maclain Herr and Nate Prescott, Stephen Possell and Nick LeCount.
“We've got about six linebackers we feel good with,” Ekovich said.
Barring any injuries, it's not just depth at linebacker he's happy with this season.
“We have a solid two-deep right now,” Ekovich said. “Our depth, not only at the skill positions but also on the line, is pretty good right now.”
Depth will be essential for a team looking to end Concord's four-year reign atop the Northern Lakes Conference.
“Concord's at the top until someone knocks them off,” Ekovich said. “Concord has athletes and Coach (Tim) Dawson does a great job with those boys. They buy in.
“There's not that top dog, but there's still four, five, six teams that will vy for it,” he added.
Wawasee has three NLC championships to its name, with its latest coming in 2004, when it split the crown with NorthWood and Concord.
This year, Ekovich acknowledged a championship is a goal, but not the only goal.
“Everyone's goal is always to win the conference and win a state championship,” he said. “Last year, we really focused on winning our conference and winning our trophy games against Goshen and Warsaw. This year, we're really focused on getting better every single day. Right now, we're focused on Whitko (in Week 1), and I know that's cliche and you hear it from every single coach. But, we really are focused on getting better every single day.”
After opening the season at Whitko on Aug. 22, the Warriors will face a new opponent in Week 2 when they host West Noble.
Despite their close proximity to each other, Wawasee hasn't played West Noble since drubbing the Chargers 53-0 on Sept. 8, 1973, which ended a four-year series that began in 1970.
West Noble replaces South Bend St. Joseph on the schedule, and gives Wawasee a little better chance of entering its NLC season on a positive note.
“St. Joe's is a state power,” Ekovich said. “It was always nice to be able to play them, but it also could work negatively. In 2011 (a 12-3 loss in South Bend) was a great confidence booster, but in 2012, they thrashed us (35-7) and they thrashed us again last year (34-0 in a game cut short due to lightning). When that happens, we take two weeks to rebuild confidence, as opposed to getting better at positions or getting better as a team.”
Wawasee begins conference play in a tough manner, hosting Northridge Sept. 5, followed by a game at Concord, a home contest against NorthWood and a trip to Plymouth before hosting Warsaw in the annual 'W' game.