Head coach Ron Planz hopes to continue the growth of the EC football program this fall, when the Bluejays will return to Langhorst Field for the 97th season of Bluejays football.
“I want to continue to grow” says Planz. “This will be my fourth season, so I really want to see us continue to grow. There wasn’t a need to change culture here, but there was a reset. Being the third coach in three years, that takes a mental drain on the players.”
Planz’s team saw significant growth last season as the Bluejays improved their record to 5-5 (4-4 CCIW) after a 4-6 (1-6 CCIW) mark in 2015. In order to continue that growth, Planz expects to lean on an offense that returns a talented group of skill players.
“We have some home run hitters. We’ve got some guys that can run really fast” says Planz. “Really tall and powerful guys, [Matt] Brockman and [Kaylon] Miller. Fast guys with Austin [McKellar] and Jawan [Gaines], so we’re really really excited about what the passing game is going to look like next season.”
Veteran quarterback Orlando Hernandez seems to be particularly excited about working with Gaines this fall.
“I think this spring ball was very productive for him. He was very focused and locked in” says Hernandez of the young wide receiver. “I think he’s gonna have a bigger role in this upcoming season.”
Runningback Ben Holloway started eight games last season and will battle with Brock Bethke, Treston Womack, and Chris Ivers at that position, with Jim Robley expected to move to fullback.
However, as Hernandez went on to acknowledge, the Bluejays offensive line will be the key to any improvements on that side of the ball.
“All of that starts with the guys up front” said Hernandez. “If they aren’t giving me enough time to pass, the play isn’t going to develop for it to go downfield.”
Planz is pleased with the experience he has returning along the line, noting that it all starts with center Garrett Underwood.
“He is our all-conference guy” said Planz. “He is kind of the field general for those guys out there. He makes the calls and gets everybody going in the right direction. He does a really good job of that.”
In addition to Underwood, the offensive line brings back tackles Pat Walsh and Zach Dixon.
“We’ve worked on our technique, getting better with that and as well as the two new guys we’re bringing up, Dave Michaels and Jeremy Allen, we’ve been grooming them for a while” said Underwood. “We saw a lot of improvement, Jeremy especially, coming from [the defensive] line, finally being able to get some reps.”
“I feel like it’s gonna be a really good year for that unit, especially under the second year of Coach Kirkpatrick” said Planz. “The way he approaches it and goes about it, that’s gonna help give us some strides in the right direction.”
Defensively, despite losing players to graduation, Planz expects his team to pick up where they left last season.
“Up front, defensive line-wise, we’ll be younger, because we had a lot of senior defensive linemen last year, but we feel really comfortable that we are not gonna take too much of a step back because they guys have been in the system, they understand the system” said Planz. “I feel really comfortable with our defense.”
Planz went on to add that, “Believe it or not, I think we will probably be faster on defense than we were last year, just because some of the personnel.”
Underwood offered his unique perspective gained by practicing against that defense this spring,
“I would have to say that a lot of improvement has been coming from nose guard John Rubino and upcoming [defensive] end Sean Kelly” said Underwood. “Bino is a real hard nosed football player and is in there to get the job done. Joe Nixon is one of our linebackers. He’s a really smart kid. He’s gonna get in there and make the plays.”
Coaches around the CCIW recently completed their preseason poll, placing the Bluejays in 5th place; however, Planz does not appear to be worried about preseason rankings.
“I want our guys, always, to be thinking about conference championships, and those kind of goals that you can see, but its the improvement everyday that can achieve those goals” said Planz.
The Bluejays open their season at home against Loras College on September 2nd with a 1 p.m. start time. Their CCIW season begins on the road at North Park University at 1 p.m. on September 16th.