Valley football counting on togetherness, hard-working offseason to reach next level
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
FORT WAYNE –- The strong bonds of the Tippecanoe Valley football team didn’t break when their season ended with a loss to Mishawaka Marian in the Class 3A, Sectional 26 semifinals last October.
If anything, they grew stronger and more together.
They lift weights together. They practice and play seven-on-seven together. They watch film together. They hang out together off the field.
They hope that their togetherness leads to them jumping that next level in 2021. Valley has had three straight winning seasons, going 6-5 in 2018 and 7-4 in both 2019 and 2020.
They have beaten Rochester and won the Bell the last three seasons. They have also won a sectional game in each of the last three seasons, which is the first time they have done that since 2001-03.
But they have also lost to Southwood the last six times they have played. And they have not won the Three Rivers Conference since 2012.
And they have not been to a sectional final, much less won a sectional, since 1992. Last year’s sectional semifinal loss to Mishawaka Marian was by a 41-24 score, but that might mask a greater disparity: Most of the second half was played with a running clock.
Speaking at the Northeast Indiana High School Football Media Day at Empowered Sports Club Friday, they talked about their togetherness and the next step they will try to make as a team.
The togetherness starts with lifting, according to fifth-year coach Stephen Moriarty.
“I would say we’ve been in the weight room quite a bit,” Moriarty said. “Losing to Mishawaka Marian gave us a bar that we knew we had to get to. Once you set that bar, you see the hurdles that you have to get to. It kind of pushes you, right? I think in the offseason, I’m very impressed with our attendance, and our effort has been outstanding.”
Said senior running back and cornerback Braden Shepherd about the offseason: “Intense is how I would describe it. And taxing. And time-consuming. We’ve been on the field, in the weight room and at each other’s houses watching film almost every day of this offseason. We are strictly focused on this upcoming season. It’s all we can think about. It’s all we can talk about.”
Starting in the weight room
Wade Melanson, a Class 3A Junior All-State right guard who will also start at defensive tackle, said he has lost 15 pounds since the end of last season – he was listed at 368 at the start of the 2020 season – and said he feels faster. He said he now squats 535 pounds, a 60-pound improvement.
“That’s crazy,” a smiling Moriarty said when he heard the news of Melanson’s lift.
“Lots of grinding,” Melanson said of his offseason. “Lots of weight room, field time, practices and talking football with my friends.”
Moriarty said the supportive nature of the team is just as strong in the weight room.
“The kids too, when they do that stuff, when they max out, it’s fun to see them all gather around and try to root each other on,” Moriarty said. “It’s a good hyped-up atmosphere.”
Asked if they improved from 2019 to 2020, Moriarty said he expected a batter season in 2020. He said a home loss to Peru last year was especially frustrating.
Valley recorded back-to-back shutouts against North Miami and Rochester last season. It marked the first time Valley had recorded consecutive shutouts since 2011.
A healthy Shepherd will help the secondary.
Look for Joel Cisneros to replace the graduated Johnny Gonsalez at middle linebacker. Melanson described Cisneros as “mean” and a “bulldog type of guy.”
“We’re just nasty upfront,” Melanson said. “We set the tone. We let people know we’re not here to play around. We’re wanting this game, and you’re not going to score a point against us. That’s our mindset. Simple as that.”
With the coronavirus pandemic a less intrusive part of daily life, Moriarty said this has been a more normal offseason. And now that both Moriarty and his entire coaching staff have been together for five years, that has led to greater stability, seemingly a key trait among all good teams.
One of those members of Moriarty’s staff is offensive coordinator Carl Weaver. Weaver has installed an offense with more run-pass options. That gives quarterback Branson McBrier more freedom to make decisions with the ball in his hands after the snap.
To get ready for the season ahead, McBrier and Weaver have watched hours of film where Weaver has taught McBrier what to look for in the defense.
McBrier, a senior who is in his second season as the starter, is often looking at the opposing team’s safeties and outside linebackers – Valley uses the terminology “capped” or “not capped” to describe the positioning of the safety – to see where he might go with the ball.
“A run-pass option can be a very difficult offense to defend, but it’s also very difficult to run that offense,” Moriarty said. “You’re going to have to spend some time on it and then having some defensive recognition, and I think Branson has that.”
McBrier explained his decision-making process.
“It gives me a lot of freedom to be able to keep the outside linebackers disciplined and staying on the inside,” McBrier said.
McBrier was a lineman when he first started playing football. By the time he got to the “upper league” within the Valley middle school program, he was switched to quarterback. He described the offseason as “really eventful.”
“Being able to be the one that makes all the decisions and just being the leader on the field and stuff and making sure everybody gets to where they’re supposed to do what they’re supposed to do,” McBrier answered when asked what he likes most about being a quarterback.
McBrier said sophomore Wade Jones is another athletic split end who can line up on the opposite side of first-team all-TRC receiver Rex Kirchenstien. Another sophomore, Landon Durkes, could see time at tight end and has impressed McBrier with his blocking.
When he’s not throwing to Kirchenstien or Jones, he could be looking for Shepherd or the versatile Jamasyn Virgil, who can line up in the backfield or as a slot receiver.
“They (can catch) short to medium passes, so I probably will hit either one of them probably 50 percent of the time because those short checkdowns can get us 10, 15 yards,” McBrier said.
Shepherd said he runs drills with both the running backs and receivers. Though there also abundant running plays in the offense, he said he’s not a “typical” running back and sometimes lines up as a wing.
Virgil said he watched film and determined he needs to get better at blocking. Virgil also ran track last spring – track coach Jenny Moriarty is Stephen Moriarty’s wife – and said he did it to get faster for football.
“Everything, really,” Virgil answered when asked what his role is in the offense. “I block, I run, I catch. Whatever they need me to do out there. … They kind of put it on me. That’s just the role my position plays, so I have to take it on.”
Virgil has played football since the third grade and said he’s always loved it.
“It gives me something to do, something to work at, something to be confident in,” Virgil said. “It builds relationships with my teammates and my coaches. It gives me another family that I can turn to.”
A history of slow starts
Already this summer, among others, they scrimmaged Class 1A state runner-up South Adams and Sheridan and all-time coaching wins leader Larry “Bud” Wright, and they have a scrimmage coming up against Warsaw Saturday.
Melanson said that this year’s team is “a lot more experienced.”
“Branson’s first year starting was last year, and now he’s getting more comfortable with the offense and with the people that he has around him,” Melanson said. “Since we’ve played together for so many years, now he’s really starting to come into our offense.”
Moriarty said he hopes it will prepare them for their season opener at Wawasee on Aug. 20. Valley has not won their season opener since 2010, and they have not started a season 2-0 since 2007. Valley’s second game is also their home and conference opener against Northfield on Aug. 27.
“We went and sought out some difficult teams to play against in the summer to get us ready for the season and that opener against Wawasee,” Moriarty said.
‘I’ve never wanted to play a season in a sport more in my life than I do right now’
Shepherd is heading back to the field after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Culver Academy in last year’s season opener. He rehabbed the injury to make it back for basketball and track seasons. He aspires to play college football at the NCAA Division I level.
He might symbolize the anticipation that the entire Valley team has with the first official practice scheduled for Aug. 2.
“I’ve never wanted to play a season in a sport more in my life than I do right now,” he said. “Because last year was going to be my breakout year. I was going to start varsity, the first year that I was starting varsity, and to have that taken away from me in the first game … I didn’t even get to play a whole game, and to have that taken away from me, the fire that was in me from last season just got multiplied by 15. I can’t even describe how bad I want to play.”
Branson McBrier Braden Shepherd Jamasyn Virgil
Tippecanoe Valley football coach Wade Melanson