SOUTH WHITLEY – The best way to describe the 2017 season, said third-year Whitko High School football coach Jeff Sprunger, is to call it a humbling experience.

It certainly was, and Sprunger hopes he, his staff and his players learn and mature from it.

After winning Sprunger’s first five games as a head coach en route to a 7-4 record in 2016, the Wildcats were young and inexperienced at the varsity level as they struggled through an 0-10 season a year ago.

Sprunger and the Wildcats enter Friday’s season opener against Churubusco with more varsity experience than this time a year ago, and the third-year head coach is eager to prove his team is vastly improved.

Whitko scored more than eight points in just two of their 10 games last season, while giving up at least 34 points in nine games.

“It’s a real humbling experience to go through a season like we did last year,” said Sprunger, whose dad led the Wildcats to the state title in 1986. “I came in two years ago, and I was blessed with some great players like Garrett Elder, and last year we had good players, just not enough of them.

“The kids were humbled as well, and they realize they were kind of fortunate to have those upperclassmen kind of protecting them a little bit my first year. They understood after last season that they had to get in the weight room, that they had to get bigger, had to get faster and stronger. I challenged them at the end of the season, and we were able to get a core of them into a strength and conditioning class with just athletes. When you can get guys around you that have a common goal, the motivation you have in that weight room is greater, they’re challenging each other and pushing each other. We’ve made great progress because of that.”

Sprunger said there were 27 players that earned a varsity letter last year, and about 20 of them will be in the starting lineup this season.

That experience will be key as the Wildcats try to snap an 11-game losing streak. Whitko has just one win in its last 14 games, dating back to the 2016 season.

“We’re stronger, we’re bigger, and we’re able to combine that with the experience that a lot of these guys got playing varsity last year,” said Sprunger.

“It’s going to be exciting to see what these guys can do this season. It’s going to be a completely different Whitko team than what you saw last year. We were a good JV?team last year, we weren’t ready for varsity. This year, I feel like we’re going to field a good varsity team.”

Whitko has to replace the void of a standout on each side of the ball.

Fullback Hunter Reed, who led the team in rushing last season, graduated.

Candidates to step into that role and contribute to Whitko’s running attack include Zakk Neer, Zach Gardner, Riley Young, Cameron Sapp, Mason Lehman and Nick Meadows.

Defensively, the Wildcats lost safety Kaleb Busz.

Expected to fill that void are Ethan Howard, Colin Loe and Cade Bechtold.

“We have experience coming back that’s going to be able to help us,” said Sprunger. “We need guys like Zach Gardner to step up and play that halfback spot for us. Cameron Sapp, who’s a sophomore this year, has the potential to challenge us in that spot. We have to get those guys going so we have some threat on the edge.”

On the offensive line, the Wildcats return four starters – Jarrett Ocken, Brad Trump, Gabe Gaff and Daulton Webb.

Bechtold, now a senior, played quarterback last year, but junior Dominick Moseley is expected to be under center this season.

“Last year we had Cade Bechtold at quarterback, and we really were hoping as a sophomore Dominick Moseley was going to be able to help us there,” said Sprunger. “Unfortunately during the scrimmage last year he broke his collarbone and didn’t come back until the end of the season against Wabash.

“This year he’s challenged Cade, and he’s been a little bit more of the standout. He’s a little more of a dynamic player in terms of using his feet. Cade might have a little bit bigger arm, but we feel like Dominick brings some new dynamics to our offense in terms of being able to get to the edge using the option.

“That doesn’t mean we’re losing Cade, he’s just going to probably go out to the split end position and help us there.”

On the defensive line, Sprunger expects big play from Webb, Gaff, Ocken, Meadows, Braxten Coburn and Bhrett Weese.

Mason Lehman, Ashton Schuh, Cayden Nunley and Ethan Howard will be among the linebackers, while Isaiah Pierce and Bechtold will play in the secondary.

“Defensively we feel solid. We’re excited to see what we can do there,” said Sprunger.

The Wildcats open the season Friday when they host Whitley County foe Churubusco.

Whitko entertains county rival Columbia City in Week 2.

The Wildcats open play in the Three Rivers Conference North Division by hosting Rochester on Sept. 7.