Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union

Whitko senior Cade Berg carries the ball for the Wildcats in their 2019 Three Rivers Conference game against North Miami.
Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union Whitko senior Cade Berg carries the ball for the Wildcats in their 2019 Three Rivers Conference game against North Miami.
SOUTH WHITLEY — Head coach Phil Jensen looks at his Whitko High School football program as it heads into the 2020 season with cautious optimism.

“I like the guys we can put on the field,” says Jensen, who is entering his second season. “The key is that we’ve got to stay healthy.

“Our sophomores played a lot of reps last year for us. We changed up the offense and the kids understand things a little better.”

While dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the IHSAA Class 2A Wildcats have been preparing to open Friday, Aug. 21 at Ryan Huffman Memorial Field against Prairie Heights. The county health department is capping the maximum crowd capacity (as of last week that was 650).

The week before the opener Whtiko had 31 players in four grades. Jensen has been recruiting in the hallways.

“We were making really good in-roads in the weight room (in March) then you send them away from four months it’s really easy to lose kids,” says Jensen. “We’re glad we’re back in school.

“We’ll take (new) kids through next week.”

Because there were less than 30 at the start of practice, Whitko chose not to play junior varsity game with Prairie Heights this week.

The Wildcats went 0-10 in varsity football in 2019 and are 1-29 over the past three seasons.

“When you’re trying to re-build a program that’s gone through some lean years,” says Jensen. “(The downturn) didn’t happened overnight. We’re not going to fix it overnight, but we’ve got to keep moving forward.

“We’re glad we’re getting to play. We’ll keep moving forward. We’re taking it one day at a time.”

Jensen plans to use a spread offense and brings back junior Ethan Schuh (52-of-118 for 576 yards and four touchdowns passing plus 166 yards and three TDs rushing in 2019) as his starting quarterback.

Junior running back Cade Berg (463 yards and one TD), junior slotback Isaiah Kyles and senior tight end Cameron Sapp (five catches for 77 yards) are also returning offensive starters.

Vying for time at split end will be junior Tyler Veach and newcomers Drake Lewis (senior) and Gavyn Ness (junior).

Junior Blayne Stump is a utility back-up, who can play multiple skill positions.

The interior line features four returning starters — guards Braxton Coburn (senior) and Nick Meadows (senior) and tackles Dalton Ousley (junior) and Zac Riemersma (senior). Senior Sam Lozier is tabbed to be the starting center.

Jensen says Whitko will employ a 3-4 base defense with a nose guard and two ends in front of four linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties.

Junior Devin Ulshafer is a returning starter at nose guard.

In the mix at defensive end are Riermersma, Coburn (25 tackles in 2019), Meadows (25 tackles) and newcomer Austin King (senior).

Jensen says he expects Cameron Sapp, junior Grayson Ulshafer (three interceptions) and junior Caiden Sattison to be inside linebackers with Veach, Ness and Schuh on the outside.

Lewis and Kyles (53 tackles) are the top candidates at cornerback with Stump, Berg (48 tackles), junior Robert Werstler and freshman Jack Hill competing for time at safety.

It looks like Sapp will kick off and punt and junior Austin Kreps will handle place-kicking duties.

Kyles and Berg will be called on to receive kick-offs and punts.

The Wildcats’ schedule also includes four other home games (Peru Aug. 28, Maconaquah Sept. 11, Tippecanoe Valley Sept. 25 and Northfield Oct. 9) and four road contests (Rochester Sept. 4, North Miami Sept. 18, Manchester Oct. 2 and Wabash Oct. 16). All but Week 1 are Three Rivers Conference games.

Roger Webb (defensive coordinator), Wayne Swender and Joey Busz are on Jensen’s coaching staff.

Whitko Football Schedule

Aug. 21        Prairie Heights

Aug. 28        Peru*

Sept. 4        at Rochester*

Sept. 11        Maconaquah*

Sept. 18        at North Miami*

Sept. 25        Tippecanoe Valley*

Oct. 2        at Manchester*

Oct. 9        Northfield*

Oct. 16        at Wabash*

Home games in bold

*-Three Rivers Conference game