by Michael Smith
The Grain Valley football team lost 22 seniors from its 2020 team that made the Class 5 state quarterfinals.
Oftentimes losing that many players from a successful team could lead to a down year the following season. Some outside the team are thinking that according to some of the Eagles players and coaches. But if you ask starting quarterback Caleb Larson, the Eagles are poised to prove the doubters wrong in 2021.
“Our goal is to win state,” Larson said. “We could be the smallest team or we could be the biggest team. We’re coming out and working hard every day. We are coming to win that ring. We have some critics out there, but we are getting past that.”
The Eagles will be led by Larson, a first-year quarterback who has looked good in summer camps, according to head coach David Allie. He is a signal caller who mostly likes to throw from the pocket, but has enough speed to take off running with the ball when needed.
Most importantly, he works hard, Allie said.
“We’re still working on reads and hitting the right guy, but he wants to make this position his, and he’s done a great job,” Allie said. “I really appreciated his work ethic. He wants to be better, he wants to work at it, he wants to watch film.
“I would not call him a great runner, but he’s a deceptive runner. He makes the read, he pulls it and he’s gone. He’s not only a deceptive runner, he hasn’t been afraid to be physical with it either.”
Larson will have a huge help in the backfield from Jaxon Wyatt, who is a returning starter at running back. He rushed for 959 yards and eight touchdowns on 150 carries and has also made some huge strides in the offseason on catching the ball out of the backfield. He will get the bulk of the carries but will be aided by fellow running backs junior Christian Lanear, freshman DJ Harris and senior Dalton Larry, all of whom could see some carries this season.
“When we need him to get the hard yards, he will get them,” Larson said of Wyatt. “He can also get on the outside and get up the field.”
At wide receiver, Logan Pratt will likely be the No. 1 receiver. He is a speedy receiver that provides Larson with a deep threat who can also catch the ball on shorter routes, as well. Eric Rhymes, a senior, will likely be on the opposite side of the field from Pratt and also provides some speed on the outside.
Sophomore Anthony Greco, Ty Williams and junior Keagan Hart will also see some time at receiver, too.
“We have some pretty good receivers,” Larson said. “Greco is more of the first down, possession type receiver and Rhymes is the explosive player like Pratt. Keegan is just a freak of nature. He does a little bit of everything.”
On the offensive line is where the Eagles have the least amount of experience with two returns coming back from the 2020 team. Cooper Terry and Connor Heitman come back with some varsity experience at the tackle positions. The other three offensive line spots will be filled by newcomers. Those fighting for the remaining three spots are Stylz Blackmon, Brycen Crandall, Easton Knight and Sheldon Croan. At tight end, senior tight end Trent Weber will assist with blocking.
“Those guys are starting to communicate better,” Allie said of his offensive line. “It’s all about angles and technique and knowing who you are supposed to go get, and those guys talk well. We run a gap (blocking) scheme. We mix it up.”
On defense, the Eagles have two returning starters in the secondary and one with varsity experience as a backup. Senior cornerback Tristan Pouncil and Hart, a safety, are both who were starters and senior cornerback Jordan Jones started some games last season. Junior Vincent Wilkins and sophomore Gabe Storment are candidates to fill out a secondary that will likely be the strength of the Grain Valley defense.
“Our secondary is definitely a strength and I think we can live up to the potential that we have,” Pouncil said.
The Eagles also have three returning players with varsity experience on the defensive line including senior Sawyer Farris, senior Ethan Schaaf and junior Jake Allen will battle in the trenches up front. Junior Rhylan Alcanter is a newcomer who could make an impact on the defensive line, as well.
Senior Grant Ward and Blackmon could also see time there, too.
“He’s long and explosive and can play inside or outside for us,” Allie said of Alcanter. “He’s a kid that’s going to surprise a lot of people because they don't know anything about him.”
The linebacker core will be led by Gage Forkner who will move from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. He’s a football savvy player who is a sound tackler for the Eagles. Senior Owen Perkins and sophomore Brody Baker could see time at the inside linebacker positions and on the outside senior Elijah Moore, junior Nathan Testa and junior Cole Elliott will likely see time on the gridiron.
“We moved him to the inside this year to run the defense for us,” Allie said of Forkner. “He can play either position but we hope to keep him on the inside because he’s smart and he’s vocal. He’s one of those leaders you need running your defense.”
At kicker, Grain Valley has a big weapon in Austin Schmidt, an Eagles soccer player who has hit field goals from 52 yards out in practice.
“We are excited about him,” Allie said. “He worked hard and worked with a kicking coach over the summer and he’s booting the heck out of the ball. He’s going to be a weapon we haven’t had in the past few years.”
While the Eagles lost a lot of experience from last year’s team, Allie likes what he has seen from this year’s team. It’s a squad that definitely isn’t lacking confidence.
“These kids have been around success, that’s all they know,” Allie said. “Now it’s their turn. They are a hard-working positive group. They believe. Others see all the guys we lost from last year’s team and count us out, they are going to make it tough for other teams to take Grain Valley lightly. They will take on whoever comes on.”