COAL CITY – Last season, the Coal City football team finished with a 5-5 record, earning a spot in the Class 4A playoffs before bowing out in a 33-14 first-round loss at Quincy Notre Dame.
Although a bulk of the offense has graduated with the loss of quarterback Brennan Shetina and receiver Nick Peters, the Coalers have reason for optimism that 2014 promises to shape up as a better year.
As with most teams, it starts up front, and that’s where the strength of the Coaler team lies, according to coach Lenny Onsen.
“Right now, I would say that the strongest part of our team is the offensive line,” said Onsen, who sports a 107-47 record in his 14 seasons as the Coalers’ head coach. “Matt Long and Curtis Smith will return as starters for us there, and they have done a great job being leaders for this group. Andrew Mathena is another guy who saw a lot of playing time that will be returning on the line for us, too.
“We have good size up front, but we are still trying to figure out where everyone fits the best.”
Others that are competing for spots on the offensive line that have impressed so far are senior L.J. Lightner and juniors Alec Leagure and Marco Alegria.
“With our size up front, we would like to be able to establish the run,” Onsen said. “We will spread it out again, but we like to be balanced.”
The big boys up front – Long is 6-foot-5 and weights between 300 and 305 pounds and Smith and Mathena aren’t far behind – will pave the way for speedster Jack Dibble to run out of the backfield. Dibble has missed most of the last two seasons with separate ACL injuries, but enters camp with a clean bill of health. Other running back spots could be filled by D.J. Budde, Parker Czaja and Paul Jones.
“I have been real pleased with Jack’s comeback,” Onsen said. “He is ahead of schedule from his last ACL injury, and he looks 100 percent. I knew he was fine when we had a camp for little kids earlier this summer, and he was darting around with them. You know how you play with kids and you move back and forth real quick trying to dodge them? Jack was doing that and having a great time with them and wasn’t worried at all about how his knee would hold up.
“A lot of times with an ACL, you can still run in a straight line, but you have trouble with the cuts, but I don’t see Jack having any problems cutting at all right now. That’s a huge plus for us because he gives us that big-play ability any time he touches the ball.”
Dibble is pumped for the season to start and to get back on the field.
“My knees feel great,” he said. “They are 100 percent. I haven’t played a full game in a long time, so I just hope to get out there and score some touchdowns. I haven’t scored one since sophomore year.
“I just know that I feel great right now. There isn’t even a hint of doubt when I try to make a move.”
Long is excited to be blocking for Dibble.
“I get chills when you mention Jack Dibble being back,” Long said. “He is just a playmaker. If he gains 20 yards, I’m disappointed in the kid that he didn’t go farther, maybe take it all the way.
“We have looked good early on. Our goal every year is to win every game, but we learned last year that we have to take things one game at a time. You can’t look ahead. You have to prepare for each week and win that week. So, even though you want to win every game, you have to worry about each week that week.”
When the Coalers decide to throw the ball, who will be throwing it is the big question. Quarterback has been a two-way battle between juniors Nick Micetich and Brad Littleton, with both showing signs of being capable.
“Both guys look good,” Onsen said. “It’s really hard to pin it down right now. It’s kind of like a teeter-totter. One day, one will move up a little and the next day the other will move ahead a little. It’s a nice problem to have because we feel very comfortable with either one of them.”
Receiver candidates include Littleton, if he isn’t the quarterback, along with Trent Sula, Corey Jurzak, Ryan Horrie, Joey Quinn and Seth Johnson.
Anchoring the defense for the Coalers will be linebacker Parker Czaja, along with Long on the defensive line and D.J. Budde in the secondary. Onsen, the defensive coordinator, likes things that way.
“I always try to have a returning starter on every level of the defense, on the line, the linebackers and the secondary,” he said. “They help keep things in order out on the field.
“Parker Czaja is a very good linebacker and he will be our anchor in the middle. Matt will play on the D-line, and D.J. and Cory Jurzak are both good defensive backs that we have returning.”
Other candidates on the defensive line will be Mathena, Alegra and Brad Churnovic, while Churnovic also could see time at linebacker. Micetich and Mike Chiarappa have been impressive in the defensive backfield.
“I have always said that the best defensive coordinator in the country is when your offense has the ball and is chewing up the clock,” Onsen said. “If we can keep the ball and get first downs and keep the other offense off the field, that helps our defense.”
“We know the defense has to be a little better this year,” Czaja said. “But, we have some good defensive backs, and we will have some huge guys on the line to help stop the run. I think we should have a good year. If we take things one game at a time, hopefully we can get a playoff game or two at home and win them. That would be a nice way to end my senior year.”