"Gehlen has been playing pretty well since 1991," said Gehlen head football coach Tony Gunter. "I think these kids are ready. They want to be successful. If we can put it together and have a good year I think it will be great for both communities."
Spalding has not fared as well. The Spartans were 1-8 in 2011 in 8-man football. Both schools lost numerous major contributors to graduation, but the transition has been smooth so far.
"The kids seem to be enjoying the program," Gunter said. "I didn't think it would be a problem, on the football side.
"Like I told them, 'If you don't like it, there's only two options. You can play or you don't come out. They decided to come out, worked hard in the offseason and did what I asked them to do. It's the same thing I ask our kids to do. If you want to play, you work hard."
Fielding a team or fielding a smaller team would have been an issue for both schools if not for the agreement, but now the Gehlen football program will compete in Class 1A.
"We wouldn't even have considered this if it wasn't a little bit of help for both programs," Gunter said. "I think (Spalding) has some kids that can help us. The fact that we jumped up to 1A due to their enrollment numbers being included with ours, for us to not get any players would've been a dumb thing to do, maybe.
"Apparently we've got some kids that want to play. We'll see what happens in the first game."
The Jays will stick with their customary one-back, spread offense. Head coach and offensive coordinator Gunter says Gehlen will rarely run an empty-backfield set and will usually feature four receivers.
"We're not changing anything," Gunter said. "We adjust the playbook according to our talent. I don't think we'll be running the ball as much as we did with Trevor (Bouma). I don't think we can replace him on either side of the ball."
Gehlen may not be adjusting the system, but the team will look to keep junior quarterback Blake Wiltgen in the pocket this season. Wiltgen threw 13 varsity passes last year. He gained experience throwing in junior varsity games, but now takes over for Zach Wurth as the starting varsity quarterback.
"He did get quite a bit of experience throwing the football," Gunter said. "He's maybe not the runner that our last few quarterbacks have been, but we're not going to change our offense based on that. We're just going to keep him in the pocket a little more.
"He's a pretty good pocket passer. We're hoping to pick some people apart that way."
Senior Michael Whitehead returns as Wiltgen's main target. Whitehead was the Jays' second leading receiver a year ago. Gehlen graduated fellow pass-catchers Alec Mousel, Mick Sitzmann and Dylan Kneip.
Junior Aaron Jentz will line up at the opposite receiver. Junior Austin Herbst and Spalding senior Thomas Stoll will compete for snaps at receiver. Stoll threw for 861 yards, eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season as the Spartans' quarterback. Stoll also scored two rushing touchdowns.
"Austin Herbst is a guy that can play anywhere for us in a skill position," Gunter said. "Thomas Stoll from Spalding will be a kid that will be on the field quite a bit for us. He could be at one of those wide receiver spots."
Junior Colton Kneip, junior Mitchell Flack and Spalding junior Kelly Full will lineup up at tight end for the Jays. Coach Bob Livermore works with the Gehlen receivers and defensive backs. Brian Kilker is also a certified volunteer assistant.
Coach Gunter says that competition for the running back position is still "up in the air" as several backs continue to compete for the spot vacated by first-team all-state running back and the Iowa Shrine Bowl North team's offensive MVP, Trevor Bouma.
Bouma carried 235 times his senior season for 2,696 yards and 42 touchdowns.
Gunter said Herbst, senior Dominic Ellensohn and junior Payton Bouma are options at tailback.
Spalding junior Erik Willman will compete for reps as well after leading the Spartans in rushing yards and receiving yards in 2011.
"I think we've got four kids in the mix," Gunter said. "We're still trying to figure out who's going to be our number one, but maybe we just do a little bit of rotation at running back.
"You see it more and more these days. Very few programs, even up to the pros, have one guy that totes the ball all the time. It's just a very physical position. Trevor happened to be a very physical guy. He could handle that responsibility and I'm not sure if we've got one guy that can handle all of the carries in a game right now."
Full could see time at fullback for Gehlen. Gunter said that running backs that do not start at tailback can also contribute at fullback.
"We'll run out of the I some," Gunter said. "We haven't had a true fullback in two or three years. So that's tough running out of the I if you don't have that true fullback."
Gehlen graduated first team all-state linemen Micah Neary and Conor Kneip, but the team still returns quality depth on the line. Senior Angel Chagolla was named second team all-state a year ago.
Junior Patrick Livermore will step in at center to replace Neary, a four-year starter. Junior Corey Sitzmann will back up Livermore at center and compete for a starting spot along the line.
Hard-working senior Lorenzo Tomasiello, senior Joey Mayrose and senior Ryan Bates give coaches Paul Ellensohn, Chad Pecks and Wade Fridley options on the offensive line. Spalding senior Grant Schuver, Spalding junior Kyle Hunt, senior Ross Tentinger and junior John Mayrose will add depth and compete for reps.
"We've got lots of lineman," Gunter said. "We have a lot of depth on the line. It's too early to tell where our ability is going to end up, but we should be able to block pretty well."
The Jays will be based out of a 4-3 defense, but could utilize a 5-man front often in district play against numerous run-heavy offenses.
"We can get in a 5-front very easily if we need to against heavy-run teams," Gunter said. "We feel like our front four, defensively -- we're going to be as strong as we've ever been."
Tomasiello and Tentinger will lead the interior defensive line. Chagolla, Hunt and several other players are working at the defensive end positions.
Gehlen graduated all three linebackers from a year ago and will be looking to younger players to step up.
Herbst did play linebacker for the varsity team at times last year. Bouma, Livermore and Sitzmann are options as well. Willman and Flack are in the mix for the linebacker spots.
"My goal is those kids step up," Gunter said. "We're going to get physical in practice here the next couple weeks. We're going to find out who wants to, at least, be physical."
Whitehead will lead the Jays' defensive backs once again at strong safety. Wiltgen will start once again at safety. Gunter said Stoll and Willman are capable backups at both safety positions.
Jentz and Ellensohn are the leading candidates at cornerback. Gunter expects several other players to be able to provide depth at corner.
Gehlen has had little time to practice special team so far this preseason, but Gunter is confident in the pieces he already has in place.
Senior Fabio Rivera maintains many of the kicking duties, including kickoffs, extra points and field goals.
"(Rivera) is just excellent," Gunter said. "He's killing the ball this year. If we can get inside the 30, we feel very comfortable kicking a field goal."
Whitehead will punt and even kick off at times. Livermore will be the Jays' deep snapper.
Whitehead, Jentz and Willman will be expected to be the returners on kick returns and punt returns.
Gehlen maintains two rivalry games to start off the season. The Jays will square off with the Hinton Blackhawks on Saturday, Aug. 25 in the CNOS Football Classic at Olsen Stadium at Morningside College in Sioux City. Hinton was 2-7 in 2011.
Gehlen's Aug. 31 opponent is Akron-Westfield. The Westerners were 8-3 last season.
The move up to Class 1A is one of uncertainty for Gehlen. Gunter says that many of the team's district opponents are "unknowns" since Gehlen has not played them or even played in the same classification as many of the teams for so long.
"In our new district, we haven't played anybody, I don't think, for a long time," Gunter said. "There was a time, years ago, we played South O'Brien. I just don't know anything about these schools. That's the hard part."
Two six-win teams and two three-win teams are sandwiched around North Union and an Okoboji team that returns after not fielding a team a season ago.
Gehlen closes the season against 2011 Class 1A state semifinalist, Emmetsburg. The E-Hawks went 12-1 last season with their only loss coming in the semifinal round.
"I'd be surprised if we really blow anybody out and I'd be surprised if we get blown out," Gunter said. "I think we're going to have a lot of close games. It's going to come down to executing, not turning the ball over, really good coaching -- we're going to have to coach better than we've ever coached."
|Saturday, Aug. 25||Hinton||4 p.m.|
|CNOS Football Classic at Olsen Stadium,||Morningside College, Sioux City|
|Friday, Aug. 31||Akron-Westfield||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Sept. 7||at South O'Brien||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Sept. 14||Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Sept. 21||at North Union||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Sept. 28||Okoboji (Homecoming)||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Oct. 5||at Western Christian||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Oct. 12||at Unity Christian||7 p.m.|
|Friday, Oct. 19||Emmetsburg||7 p.m.|