Fair Grove has been strong since Bill Voorhis took the reins of the program three years ago, as the Eagles have posted a 24-10 record in his tenure.
Last year was the best season yet as the Eagles finished 11-1 and undefeated Mid-Lakes conference champions before losing to Class 2 juggernaut Lamar 53-0 in the Class 2, District 4 title game.
The Eagles will have to reload after losing 10 players from that team that garnered at least one all-conference honor.
“The biggest thing that is they contributed was their leadership in the locker room and on the sideline. Guys like Daniel Terry and Dalton Cloyd, you are going to miss them on the field, but you will miss them more the way they handled themselves in the locker room and at practice,” Voorhis said.
The offense will have a different look this year after being a run-heavy attack in 2016. Fair Grove graduated 2,566 of 2,711 rushing yards from that team.
Things will start with Jayden Kensinger at quarterback. He was the back-up to Brayden Lumley last season, but split reps down the stretch to get a lot of experience. The senior’s biggest moment came in the game against Catholic in Week 4. Kensinger came off the bench cold and completed one pass for a 50-yard touchdown that would prove to be the game-winning score.
After that he split time with Lumley for the rest of the season on his way to 823 yards passing and eight touchdowns while completing 75-percent of his passes.
“You can already tell in practice that he (Kensinger) has an air of confidence around him. He knows that this is his year. He knows that he can produce on Friday’s because he did last year,” Voorhis said. “That is kind of what you hope for everywhere; that guys step in and you don’t have to rebuild, you just have to reload.”
His top target will be Class 3 400-meter dash champion Isaac Mauldin who caught 36 balls for 598 yards and five touchdowns last season.
“He is playing with a special kind of confidence right now,” Voorhis said. “It is going to be ‘how many different ways can we get the ball into Isaac’s hands?’ He is a speed mismatch for anyone who is going to line up against him,” Voorhis said.
Sophomore Cole Gilpin and junior Elijah Young will also factor in the receiving game.
Noah Sandridge, a 5’10, 235-pound bruiser, will be the workhorse in the backfield after rushing for 136 yards on 16 carries last year.
Last year the Eagles lined up in primarily two-back sets, but Sandridge will be alone in the backfield much of this season to focus on the passing game.
Colton Dame, Hunter Robertson and Cody Gunder return on the line and will be joined by Devin Dueker who would have started on the offensive line a year ago had it not been for a torn ACL.
Though the line is experienced, their assignments will be a little different with a heavier passing attack.
“Those guys are going to asked to do a lot of different things from what we did last year” Voorhis said. “Last year we were more run first to set up the pass, and I think we are going to be a lot the opposite this year. They are going to be asked to pass protect, which isn’t something they have been asked to do quite a bit. Having those guys up there knowing they can compete at the varsity level has made that transition to that style offense a lot easier.”
Defensively, Robertson and Dame will anchor the defensive line after both were honored as First-Team All-Mid Lakes defensive ends last season.
“They fit the mold of what you want at defensive end and we are expecting big things out of them this year,” Voorhis said.
Stewart Hopkins will be in the center of the defense after a 47-tackle junior season. Hopkins, who was a first-team all-conference linebacker last season, is primarily a hockey player and played football for Fair Grove for the first time last year. Often he will play football on Friday night and head out of town for two or three hockey games the next day. He leaves football practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays to make his way to hockey practice where he is an enforcer.
That hockey mentality has translated well to the gridiron for Hopkins.
“He is everything you look for in a middle linebacker when it comes to production and being a leader and being vocal. He is the heart of that defense right now,” Voorhis said.
Mauldin will key the secondary for the Eagles after pulling down 24 tackles and seven pass break-ups last season.
It would be easy for most programs coming off of a season where so many players have moved on to temper expectations, but not Fair Grove. The Eagles want to make last year’s 11-win season the rule, not the exception.
“We talked to them about keeping their standards high. Nobody in our locker room is expecting anything less than trying to repeat what we did last year,” Voorhis said. “Our first goal is to try and win the conference again. I know our kids and our coaches would like to try and get another shot at Lamar. They are the best that there is right now. There is nobody better in the state. Those are the types of games you want to be in. You want to play against those guys to see where you are at.”
Fair Grove opens the season on Aug. 18 at Buffalo.