SAVANNA – Just how good was West Carroll last season?
The Thunder played eventual 1A champion Lena-Winslow to begin the season, and ended it against eventual 2A champ Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley. No NUIC team in the regular season had scored more than the 20 points the Thunder put up against the Panthers. No team had limited GCMS to the 24 points it scored against the Thunder by the second round of the 2A playoffs.
Experienced senior skill players had a lot to do with last year’s 7-4 campaign. Gone, however, are the Thunder’s top four rushers and receivers, a 3-year starting quarterback and lead tackler.
Matt Leitzen isn’t starting from scratch. The fourth-year Thunder head coach will have plenty of players who saw playing time on defense.
“On the outside, it’s going to look like a rebuild,” Leitzen said. “Every team loses seniors. Did we lose a good group of seniors? Yes. I think every other team is going to say the same thing. With that being said, we bring back juniors that got a lot of playing time last year, especially toward the end of the season.
“Our roster will look young, but as far as field time, we’re not as young as people anticipate us to be.”
Of the Thunder’s 11 games last year, the defense gave up more than one touchdown in only three – against Lena-Winslow, Forreston and GCMS. Shutouts were pitched in four games, and Leitzen has plenty of confidence in last year’s freshman/sophomore players who won the NUIC Northwest with a 8-1 record and four blankings of their own.
Senior linebackers Grant Mangler and Kody Schneider were a big part of the defensive success of last year. Schneider noted that the seniors then had a special bond, and now its his class’ turn to lead.
“[We] underclassmen saw that, and I think we’re going to try to bring that back,” Schneider said. “They all thought alike, and I think we’re going to all think alike, everything’s going to be there, and we’re going to have the right mindset.”
“Last year’s seniors had great work ethic, and they knew how to push us in all of the right ways,” Mangler added. “We learned a lot of great lessons, and how to win and work as a team. Hopefully we can carry the success of last year’s team over to this year.”
Schneider, the Thunder’s center, will snap to his cousin, Derek Tracy, this season. Tracy was the fresh-soph quarterback last year, and has big shoes to fill. Kody Plattenberger threw for 1,345 yards and 15 TDs, and rushed for eight more scores last year. Also graduating from the last year's offense were Kody’s twin brother Kaleb (86-419 rushing, 8 TDs; 28-491 receiving, 8 TDs), Cory Simpson (32-142 rushing; 13-138 receiving) and Jacob Dunk (27-392, 6 receiving TDs).
Mangler looks to fill in the tight end role that Simpson played, and learned quite a bit from the rung above him on the depth chart.
“It has its highlights,” Mangler said. “You can be the guy catching all of the passes, but mainly you just need to be the guy that really blocks for your running back, because the front six paves the way.”
West Carroll will once again open with defendint 1A champ Lena-Winslow, this time at Massey Field. Five of the Thunder's first seven games will be at home, save Week 2 at Durand-Pecatonica and Week 5 at Galena. The schedule is the same as last year's, but locations have flipped.
The number of football players in the NUIC has gone down in recent years, but the trend is the opposite at West Carroll. Numbers have gone up in each of Letizen’s four seasons at the helm; 48 showed up for the first day of practice on Aug. 6. Two-way players will still dot the Thunder roster, but there may be plenty of relief to help them in big games.
“Our defensive unit is probably on pace, or farther ahead, of where we were last year,” Leitzen said. “Our varsity kids last year played pretty good defense, maybe 95 percent of the season, and we bring back a good group of kids that got a good piece of that last year.”
Senior lineman Daltin Cover and his teammates are ready for the challenge.
“All of the juniors now are ready to go,” Cover said. “They know their positions and their jobs to do, and we should be looking good.”
“We got some really hungry kids that are ready to play,” Schneider said. “They’re ready to do things better than everyone else.”
Did you know?
• West Carroll’s 7 wins last season are the most in school history, and the most for its predecessor schools – Mount Carroll and Savanna – since Savanna finished 7-3 in the Indians’ lone playoff season (1989).