That’s what I took away from McPherson High’s scrimmage Saturday morning at McPherson Stadium.
Tom Young, 65-22 with eight playoff appearances in eight years as coach, is readying his team for what easily is the most difficult schedule the Bullpups have played in his tenure.
MHS, for the first time in at least the modern era, opens the season on a Thursday night Sept. 4 at Salina South, which finished second in Class 5A last year. That’s followed by the home opener Sept. 12 against Andale, which ended MHS’ 2013 season and already has been ranked No. 1 in at least one Class 4A Division II poll.
Also dotting the schedule are defending 4A champion Buhler as well as Hays, which has been garnering some Top 5 4A mention in the preseason. And don’t forget Winfield, which has joined MHS in the “others” division in at least one preseason poll.
The Bullpups welcome back several key players off last year’s 6-5 team that overcame injuries and a lack of depth at some positions for yet another winning season.
What struck me about this team Saturday was how is goes about its business without a lot of fanfare. It’s a blue-collar group that shows up with its lunch pail, rolls up its sleeves and goes to work.
Even though there wasn’t a lot of “rah-rah” emanating from the field, that shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of passion.
“They played with a lot of energy,” Young said. “I was pleased with that, especially on the defensive side.”
Young is hoping the team can return to its balanced offensive ways after tilting heavily toward the run during the second half of the 2013 season. MHS had a young, inexperienced wide receiving corps last year as there were no Christian Ulsakers, Jordan Harts or Keaton Sorensons, who rang up 1,000-yard seasons in their final year.
That led to both returning quarterback Kyler Kinnamon and the departed TJ Stites to combine for more than 2,800 yards rushing, with Kinnamon breaking the school record with 1,662, eclipsing Dwayne Chandler’s longstanding mark of 1,536.
Young, though, wants to take some of the pressure off Kinnamon by throwing the ball more. Nearly all the receivers are back and Young said he’s been pleased with how they catch the ball. Jason Anderson, Spenser Wine, Luke Williams, Casey Cheek and Kolby Reed should be better with a year under their belt, and the tight end position could become more important with Luke Stucky and Manhattan transfer Payton Stephens sharing the spot. Stephens is a terrific athlete with great dimensions (6-4, 215) and if he can take over the position, that would permit Stucky to concentrate on defense, where he’s expected to be a mainstay.
The running game could be consistent as both leading backs have punishing potential. Nathan Nutter runs very hard and is better suited between the tackles, while Ty Hart could be the outside threat as they share time.
Defense, however, could be the Bullpups’ barometer to the season and essential to their playoff push.
“We have a lot of team quickness,” Young said of his defense. “We’re really quick up front and we’re running the type of scheme where we’re slanting and getting some pretty good movement up there.”
From what I saw, ends Cody Starkel and Cole Hanken could develop into a dynamite pair. Starkel seemingly grows an inch every time he takes the field and will be difficult to throw over as he’s about 6-4 and just under 200 pounds. Hanken is aggressive and perhaps primed for a big year.
Young said the Bullpups made it through the first week with no major injuries.
“That’s a real positive to start with,” Young said. “The kids played with a lot of energy considering how tough it was this week (with the heat). I’m really pleased with it.”