As Creston/O-M football coach Brian Morrison was leaving the practice field at about 6 p.m. Wednesday, a thin layer of clouds filtered the sunlight, and there was a gentle southerly breeze as the temperature “dipped” to 87 degrees.
It was a nice respite from three days of sweltering workouts in preparation for Friday’s season opener at Chariton. According to the National Weather Service, this is the warmest week on record for this week in August.
“Yeah, it almost feels like fall,” Morrison said, with a wry grin.
This week’s heat wave is expected to still be in full force Friday, which prompted Morrison and his staff to get their players as prepared as possible for the conditions. Hydration, and playing time breaks through planned rotations are part of the process.
“The way it looks, Friday will be the hottest day of the week,” Morrison said, “probably 100 degrees. So, we decided to practice through it and condition ourselves.”
The fourth-year Panther coach said the team struggled in the week’s first practice on Monday, but handled things much better through two good practices Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We thought about maybe going at 7 p.m.,” Morrison said, “but it’s still hot at 7 o’clock, and then you’ve had kids sitting around in air conditioning after school, and how much will you accomplish when you get them back? We make sure the kids are hydrated. As they go through a drill, coaches make sure they go and get a drink. They also have to be responsible outside of school, that’s the biggest thing. They need to drink water at home, as well as during the school day.”
On game night, coaches have planned breaks set up, especially for those players appearing on both offense and defense.
“We have a system in place as far as who gets rest and when they get rest,” Morrison said. “The rotations are in place for every position.”
On paper, history shows a lopsided advantage for the Panthers against Chariton in recent history. The past two seasons, Chariton went 1-8 both years while falling to Creston/O-M 30-7 and 39-7. The Panthers were 8-2 and 7-3 during those campaigns.
But, this time it’s Chariton that returns the most varsity experience, as several freshmen and sophomores were on the field for the Chargers in 2012.
“Chariton was young last year,” Morrison said. “Their sophomore class is tremendous. A lot of those kids played as freshmen. They return their quarterback, wingback, three of five up front and their tight end, number 38, might be the best we see this season.”
Senior Christian Bengston already has two years of varsity experience at quarterback. And, he and returnee Chasen Blue had seven of the team’s eight interceptions on defense, so Bengston is a two-way contributor.
For the most part, Bengston directs a run-oriented offense, but at times he will set up in a shotgun formation more spread for flares and bubble screens.
The Chargers typically show an aggressive defense, usually with a five-man front, with some stunts by linebackers or within the line to disrupt things in the box.
“We have to make sure we can spread them out a little and still be able to run the ball effectively,” Morrison said.
On the injury front, receiver/defensive back McClain Haines returned to practice Wednesday after suffering a knee sprain in last week’s scrimmage, but he remains doubtful for Friday’s game. Lineman Jake Gutschenritter is hobbled with an ankle injury.
Otherwise, players are available to provide the depth Morrison is banking on.
One helpful product, funded in part by the kickoff cookout Saturday night, is a “Guardian” cap worn by players over their helmets during practice to prevent injuries.
“A team at the Northwest Missouri camp had them and we talked to them,” Morrison said. “We’ve ordered 75 of them. You don’t get the bruises to the forearms, thighs and hands that you get normally. And for concussions, they absorb 33 percent of the collision. That’s pretty big.”
In last year’s opener at Panther Field, Chariton went three-and-out on offense for every possession of the first half, falling behind 39-0 at halftime. The Chargers’ only touchdown came with 3:54 remaining against reserves with a running clock.
Quarterback Luke Neitzel started his senior campaign for Creston/O-M with three rushing touchdowns, including a 53-yard scamper. He threw two touchdown passes, including a 30-yarder to Maxx Walters, a senior in this year’s group of receivers that also includes returnee Jesse Rathe.
Neitzel and Sam Hartsock each intercepted Bengston once, and all-state linebacker Trevor Frain and Gavin Leith led the team in tackles.
This year, senior Brandon Phipps succeeds Neitzel at quarterback. Frain and Adam Baker, moved from guard, will share duties at fullback and tailback, with Conner Pals also rotating into the tailback spot.
Phipps is backed up by junior Alex Nielsen, who is also working at tight end with Levi Eblen and Leith.
Morrison plans an eight-man rotation in the offensive line, and there are five players slated for duty in the front four on defense. Baker is the lone full-time returning starter on the defensive line, while center Nate Haley is the lone returnee on offense, except for tackle Jordan Thompson, who returned from injury for the final two games last year.
Yet, coaches are encouraged about this year’s corps of linemen.
“We had a couple guys step up and earn starting positions based on the scrimmage,” Morrison said. “Our O-line should actually be quicker this year. Obviously, we have a big challenge ahead of us this Friday against a Chariton team that returns a lot of kids up front.”
While the secondary still has to prove itself with all new players except for Walters, the linebacking group could be as good as the program has had during Morrison’s time on the staff, he said.
“They’re very good,’ Morrison said. “They’re all wrestlers. We’re pretty solid with good, aggressive kids there. Our secondary kids are certainly capable, but a lot of them haven’t played against a good varsity opponent yet.”
Frain and Seth Maitlen man the inside linebacker positions, while Leith and Jesse Rathe are on the outside. Wyatt Thompson, Joey Huntington and Eblen are among the reserves.
Nielsen returns as punter after earning district honorable mention a year ago. Pals handles kickoffs and placekicking duties. Kick returners are Bryce Briley, Pals and Rathe.
Overall, Morrison expects a seamless transition from the graduation losses of teams that went 15-5 the past two seasons.
“We lost a great senior class, absolutely,” Morrison said. “But that class left a legacy to live up to that and win the district championship. We’ve had seniors step up in leadership roles — Brandon Phipps, Adam Baker, Trevor Frain, Nathan Haley — just that senior class in general has done such a nice job this year in leading this football team. The kids are excited.”