The Northwestern Warriors earned respect from opponents during the 2017 high school football season, proving they weren’t the pushovers they’ve been in the past by going from 1-9 to 4-6 under first-year coach Shane Carter.
For a program that hasn’t won a conference title since 1967 — and where sub-.500 seasons have become the norm — that spike in wins could be considered progress, although Carter would disagree.
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Asked if last season was a step forward, he replied: “That’s what THEY said,” meaning people outside the program. “But for me, no.
“I’ll never forget this: We were up against Ben Logan by 17 points in the second half (and lost 28-24). We were up against Indian Lake by 14 in the third quarter (and lost 35-24). I think we underachieved last year.”
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The Warriors were clearly more competitive, though. Their average margin of defeat was 31.4 in 2016 and 15.0 last season.
“There were some positive things that happened. But you have to look at the amount of turnovers we had, the inability to get off the field on third down, and, most important, our inability to finish games. We were very much a team that, in the third and fourth quarters, ran out of gas,” Carter said.
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Carter was hired to change the culture. And while the numbers aren’t as robust as he’d like with 40 players (including freshmen) out for the team, they seem to be feeding off his infectious enthusiasm.
“What’s most important is the kids have confidence,” he said. “When I came here, a lot of them seemed discouraged or didn’t believe they could win. There wasn’t a game last year that I felt we couldn’t compete in and win. And it was important that not only I knew that, but I relayed it to my staff and kids. ‘Hey, we can beat these guys.’ And I think we’ve finally gotten there.”
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For the Warriors to make another jump this season, they’ll need to take better care of the ball. Quarterback Chris Hart threw for 1,204 yards and eight TDs last season, but he also had 17 interceptions.
The 6-foot-2, 165-pound senior will be the starter again and is expected to be factor in the run game as the Warriors make the zone-read offense their primary attack.
“Last year, he didn’t have the success he wanted to. That’s water under the bridge. But it really motivated him this offseason, and he’s leading by example,” Carter said.
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Hart threw for 244 yards and two TDs against Indian Lake and 235 yards and another score against Kenton Ridge, but he finished the season with negative-19 yards rushing, factoring in sacks.
Carter said that needs to change.
“Him being a dual-threat guy back there, I know that will benefit our offense if he can throw and run,” he said. “He’s worked hard in the weight room to get stronger and build his body up. That’s what makes him believe he’s ready to take on the challenge and really have a great year.”
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The Warriors also will have some QB packages for senior Eli Berner, a first-team All-CBC Mad River Division selection last season. He rushed for 531 yards and 10 touchdowns in 90 carries and had 20 receptions for 232 yards and another score.
The Warriors also return four seniors who were second-team All-Mad River Division in defensive back and running back Taveont Dennis-Miller (275 rushing yards and five TDs in 2017), defensive lineman Anakin Mitterholzer (five sacks in seven games last year), linebacker Nate Snyder (a team-best 70 tackles) and offensive lineman Blake Jamison.
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But leading returning receiver, Jalen Minney, has transferred to Springfield High School, and the Warriors were dealt another blow when star lineman Adam Reidinger was ruled out this season for health reasons.
The 6-4, 315-pound senior was being recruited by FBS colleges, but doctors discovered he has a heart ailment. He’s still with the team as a student coach.
“He’s been a great motivational factor for our kids, showing them there’s more to life than just football,” Carter said.
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All-purpose back Ben Vannoord had a breakthrough season as a freshman last year and will play running back, receiver, cornerback and return kicks.
“He’s the fastest kid on the team, and I would say he’s the fastest kid in the league,” Carter said. “He ran a 4.49 (40-yard dash) in the offseason at a college camp. He’s definitely a great athlete.”
The energetic Carter has high standards for the Warriors. He sees no reason why they can’t end that lengthy conference title drought.
“When you haven’t won a championship since 1967, you’re talking about 50-some years of people not used to winning. But they’ve responded well,” he said.
“There’s days I want to get more out of them, but I understand it’s a process. It’s not going to change overnight. But I do expect to win.”
Status: D-IV, Region 16
Head coach: Shane Carter
Season opener: 7 p.m. Friday at Southeastern