Veteran Vikings hope to ‘have fun,’ improve on last year’s 7-win season
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
AKRON –- Walk into the Tippecanoe Valley football locker room prior to practice last week, and one notices two things written on a grease board adjacent to the coach’s office.
One is “B Strong,” in honor of the late Brendyn Stump, the former Valley football player who died May 17 of injuries suffered in a car accident.
The other is “Have Fun.”
Perhaps that is what one should know about the Vikings. They went 7-4 last year, but they don’t seem satisfied. From the weight room to the film room, they are dedicated to getting better. Jamasyn Virgil said he went out for the track team last spring so he could get faster for football season. But the work that goes into getting better does not come at the cost of having fun. That’s something that coach Stephen Moriarty values as he enters his fifth season as coach.
“I think that working hard and putting in time and dedication and going to war with each other and having that satisfaction of accomplishment is fun,” Moriarty said. “I think giving them a goal to strive to (achieve) and accomplish that goal is fun.”
Valley’s skill position players are a veteran group from quarterback Branson McBrier to running back Braden Shepherd to wingbacks Virgil and Hunter Eherenman to wide receivers Rex Kirchenstien and Wade Jones. McBrier threw for 1,099 yards last season. Virgil and Kirchenstien tied for the team lead with 19 receptions last year, and both were first-team all-TRC. Virgil was also Indiana Football Coaches Association Junior All-State at running back. Kirchenstien, a first-team all-TRC pick as a junior in his first prep football season, led the team with 471 yards receiving. Kirchenstien was a regional qualifier in both the 100 meters and 200 meters in track, but Moriarty doesn’t want McBrier to just loft up deep balls to Kirchenstien. “He has done a good job of working through his progressions more,” Moriarty said of McBrier. “Sometimes with a receiver like Rex Kirchenstien, it’s easy to throw it deep. Sometimes that’s not the best option. This summer, we’ve really worked on going through our progressions and reading defenses.”
Marcus Jansma and Cody Eastgate are McBrier’s backups. Shepherd could provide an added dimension to the offense. He runs drills with both the running backs and the receivers. He had 10 carries for 73 yards in his lone game action against Culver Academy last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
Joel Cisneros, who will miss the season opener against Wawasee due to injury, and Dalton Alber could see time at fullback.
Payton Potter is a 6-6 target at wide receiver that Moriarty praises for his good hands who could also see time. Sophomore Landon Durkes has impressed coaches and teammates for his blocking at tight end, and Moriarty said Durkes is also a pass-catching threat.
Their offensive line has three returnees in center Grady McGriff, right guard Wade Melanson and right tackle D.J. Estep. Melanson was first-team all-TRC last year and also an Indiana Football Coaches Association Junior All-State pick.
The unproven linemen are junior left guard Noah Prater and junior left tackle Evan Maish. “(Noah’s) a little undersized but still good for pulling,” Moriarty said. “Maish is a big kid. Evan is six-foot and he’s 226. He’s a good size where he can still move and get to the next level. With the offseason that we’ve had, this is probably the most we’ve got to be with the kids in two years, of course. But I think it’s gone a long way just learning the plays and understanding the scheme that we have.”
Moriarty, who is also the offensive line coach, entrusts offensive coordinator Carl Weaver with the play calling. He said Weaver calls about 60 percent runs and 40 percent passes. He laughs and says that there would be more of an imbalance – “I’m an 80-20 guy” -- in favor of running if he called the plays.
But he knows that the run-pass options – RPOs in football lingo – are at the cutting edge of how high school offenses operate in the 2020s.
“We still run the ball decent, and that’s our bread and butter is running the ball,” Moriarty said. “But we want to be able to throw the ball around a little bit to be able to open up those running lanes to loosen up the defense a little bit.”
Alber and Kyler Johnson are defensive ends. Melanson, Maish are Alex Bailey defensive tackles. McGriff and Estep can play both end and tackle. Estep was a first-team all-TRC player as a defensive lineman last year.
Replacing two-year starter Quentin Aldridge, who graduated and whom Moriarty called a “great leader,” will be key at end. Cisneros will replace two-time first-team all-TRC middle linebacker Johnny Gonsalez.
Noah Prater could replace Cisneros against Wawasee. The outside linebackers are Virgil and Karl Parker.
“You used to be able to play a 4-4 defense or a split-six or a 5-2. Well, in this day and age, everybody’s spread out,” Moriarty said. “So your mindset as an outside linebacker is more like safety or a corner rather than a true middle linebacker-type. ... You can tell by the size of them and the speed of them. They’re faster and they’re smaller, where in the old days, you put the big, old kids out there. So things have changed a lot, for sure.”
In the secondary, cornerbacks Kirchenstien and Shepherd and safeties Eherenman and Jones give Valley four players with varsity experience.
“We should be pretty sound in the secondary,” Moriarty said.
Cisneros’ injury also affects special teams as he is also the team’s placekicker. Jones returns for a second season at punter. Kirchenstien and Shepherd could be threats as punt and kickoff returners. Outlook Moriarty said there is good competition within the locker room for playing time. “This year’s been nice because of playing time,” Moriarty said. “We’re pretty deep in certain areas. There are a couple spots where we’re not so deep. But I think overall we’re a couple deep, and that helps push each other.” And if it all works out, they will have a lot of fun. “I think in this day and age with so many other sports pulling them in each and every way, with discipline and satisfaction of doing a good job is fun. And I think this team here understands that.”
Aug. 20 – at Wawasee, 7 p.m.
Aug. 27 – vs. Northfield, 7 p.m.
Sept. 3 – at Peru, 7 p.m.
Sept. 10 – vs. Manchester, 7 p.m.
Sept. 17 – at Rochester, 7 p.m.
Sept. 24 – vs. Whitko, 7 p.m.
Oct. 1 – at Maconaquah, 7 p.m.
Oct. 8 – at Wabash, 7 p.m.
Oct. 15 – vs. Southwood, 7 p.m.
Oct. 22 – Class 3A, Sectional 26 quarterfinal
Class 3A, Sectional 26 (record last season)
Tippecanoe Valley (7-4)
John Glenn (4-6)
Mishawaka Marian (11-1)
South Bend Washington (3-7)
West Noble (2-9)
Preseason rankings: Mishawaka Marian is No. 3, and Jimtown is No. 13.
NOTE: Mishawaka Marian is the six-time defending sectional champion and two-time defending regional champion.
Watch TVHS Football and Volleyball previews on Talking Sports with Val here: