The bright summer sun shone down on the players assembled on the practice field at Thomas More Prep-Marian High School in Hays.
Jason Cauley ran his players through drill after drill, providing plenty of water breaks as needed under the hot sun.
Looking back on the Monarchs’ last few seasons, it might be a stretch to think the only thing shining on the team is the sun. During the last three years, the Monarchs have won only three combined games.
But there’s a different feeling this year for TMP, and one that shows the sky is the limit.
“I think we all notice that,” Cauley said. “There’s a different attitude. There’s 14 seniors this year, and they all want to win. They’ve won every single year growing up since they were 4 years old until they got here as a freshman. They have a chip on their shoulders. The kids can play, and they know they can play. I think this year they’re out to prove something and just show the world they can do it.”
The difference this year is in part to that strong senior class that includes several players returning at key positions on both sides of the ball.
“We’re pretty excited to have this many seniors out this year,” said senior Gavin Schumacher. “It helps us to get ready for the season and to get ready for what we want to do during the season.”
The Monarchs return Schumacher and Chase Werth at running back, as well as Luke Ruder at wideout and backup quarterback. Dave McFarland will take over the reins at QB after missing most of last year after suffering an early injury.
Add to that solid wideouts in Creighton Renz, Trent Mayo and Tate Garcia — along with a solid offensive line — and TMP has high hopes for 2017.
“The expectations for all of us are high,” said senior lineman Alex Patel. “We’re really hoping for a winning record this year, something that hasn’t happened in a long time.”
And one of the Monarchs’ top players on both sides of the ball is only a junior — Kaleb Hagans.
Cauley knows the expectations are high with such a talented senior class.
“There is,” Cauley said about optimism in the program. “And with the parents as well. The parents are excited about it, especially with this big senior class. They’re ready to see something come through with these kids. They want to see them win, because they’re used to seeing them win until they got to the high school level. There’s no reason that we aren’t as good as the other teams. The water is the same here as it is in Phillipsburg. We drink the same water. I believe we can go and match up with anybody. I know Phillipsburg is a beast. They lost two people on offense and a few on defense, and they have people coming up from the JV and junior high that are just as good. But like I said, you don’t have to be better than them every single day as long as you’re better than them the day you play them.”
Winning has been difficult for the Monarchs since this year’s seniors took the field three years ago.
In 2014, TMP went 0-9, then followed that up with a 1-8 outing in 2015.
A year ago, the Monarchs went 2-7 and won two of their final four games in Cauley’s first year as coach.
“We’ve just gotten continually better each year,” said Ruder, who had to take over as quarterback most of last year after McFarland’s injury. “Hopefully this year will be good.”
TMP lost two games by two touchdowns or less last year.
“We even felt there was a couple games that we could have put another little notch in the victory column,” Cauley said. “That put another little chip on their shoulders. They’re ready to get after those guys who embarrassed us last year as well because there were a lot of lop-sided victories, and some games we scored late in. We showed them that we can move the ball. A lot of the teams we play lost a lot of players. We know that. But those teams are going to reload. I know they’re going to reload. (Plainville’s) Grant Stephenson is a great coach, an amazing coach. I know that whatever they lost, he’s going to have people ready to fill in. Same thing with Smith Center. They lost their really stud running back, but they have a JV running back that can probably run faster than anybody else. So they’re going to reload. We didn’t have to go through that reload session.”
Cauley has high praise for last year’s Plainville squad that finished as state runner-up in Class 2-1A. That team benefitted from a bevy of talented seniors who stepped into their roles and put the Cardinals back on the football map.
The TMP coach would love to see something similar with his team this year.
“If we are the Plainville of last year, I’ll take that,” Cauley said. “But we have some good core receivers, a senior at quarterback that’s coming on. We have one of the best running backs in the MCL, in my opinion. And we have one of the best receiving cores in the MCL. We have a young line, but it’s bigger than we’ve had and they move really well. I’m excited about what we’ve got. We’re coming in with a new defense this year. … They guys are flying around, and that’s what we like to see with the pursuit drills going great. They are going to learn their spots. The more reps we get in, the more they’ll get out of it.”
One of the things the Monarchs will have to overcome this year is another loaded schedule featuring some of the best teams in the state — including a high-caliber district featuring Phillipsburg, Norton and Russell.
Phillipsburg and Norton outscored the Monarchs by a combined 69 points in 2016 in a pair of losses. TMP beat Russell, 33-14.
“And Russell is going to be good, too,” Cauley said. “I don’t want to take anything away from Russell. But when people think about our district, they’re going to think about Phillipsburg and Norton — and rightfully so. They’ve earned that. We know getting into the later part of the season, we’re going to be better at that point, and we know they’re going to be better at that point. You really can’t prepare for a kid like (Jace) Ruder. You know he’s going to make his plays. You just hope to contain him a little bit and hope it doesn’t get crazy like last year. It’s hard. I don’t care what team you are, if you’re Smith Center or Phillipsburg or Colby or Abilene. It’s going to be hard to contain Jace Ruder. We just have to do our best job at it. And we have kids this year that are tired of seeing the back of No. 12’s jersey going to the endzone. I think we’re ready to hit him.”
The early season slate won’t be easy either, featuring an opener at Abilene and games against Smith Center and Plainville.
“It’s pretty tough,” Ruder said. “This is a football and wrestling league. It’s just something you have to grind for.”
McFarland will handle the quarterback duties this fall and has had a strong preseason, according to Cauley.
“He just has that knack that anything he does — whether it be basketball or football — he knows where he’s going before the play is,” Cauley said about McFarland. “He has a good read on the defense, and he has a great pre-snap read. In high school ball, if you have a good pre-snap read, that’s half the battle right there. And he has that. He throws a good ball, and he doesn’t get flustered. If something goes wrong, he’s just going to shake it off and go after it. He doesn’t hang his head on it. He just goes after the next play. We still have Luke, who has all the experience from last year, and he did a great job the first year in the offense. But I think with his athleticism and speed and getting him on the edge and putting him at H where he can line up in the backfield and do the jet sweep and go deep, he’s a deep threat. He can always come in at quarterback, and we have a little trickery we’re working with with that. Right now, the optimism is up.”
Renz is a big target in the receiving game, and the TMP coach said he’s finding himself in a comfortable position now.
“He’s a mismatch,” Cauley said about Renz. “We can put him out there at tight or put him at flex or we can put him on the outside. We can do whatever we want to with him, and he is a mismatch. He’s so athletic, and he’s great at every sport he plays — baseball, basketball. People are going to see it on the football field this year. He came on late last year. At the beginning of the season, he didn’t get many catches. Throughout the season, we put him inside where he could be seen more by Luke as a target — and it worked. He’s a great competitor. And he’s going to beat some people deep, too. He’s 6-3, 200 pounds. That’s a good lookin’ receiver right there. And we have Mayo, who was hurt all of last year. That hurt us because he’s an athlete. You have him on one side, Garcia on the other side with Renz in the middle and Ruder in the middle. And you have Karl Rack, who knows every single position on the field. All five of those kids can play. Then you throw into the mix Chase Werth backing up Gavin. He’s a good pounder who can block and catch out of the backfield. I like what we’ve got this year.”
The Monarchs also switched things up defensively, and Hagans will anchor the linebacker group as only a junior.
Hagans has put in a lot of work in the offseason and at camps, Cauley said, and is a building block for the defense.
“Having a kid like Kaleb out there who is as smart as a whip and can grab this player and put them in this position and know everybody’s job (is crucial),” the coach said. “You have a quarterback like that on defense, and that’s amazing.”
The Monarchs also will be helped on the line with the transfer of Cooper Mussman from Northern Valley. His size will help fill a guard position offensively.
“The line, I feel like we’re pretty solid this year,” Patel said. “A lot of our guys are a lot bigger this year, and a lot are seniors. With the new kid coming in, he’s really going to help the line. We were missing a guard position until he moved in. He was all-state both ways in 1A last year.”
All that optimism has the sun shining so far on the Monarchs. Bolstered by their strong senior leaders, Cauley is hoping the 2017 season is one that turns the corner for TMP, which hasn’t posted a winning record since 2011.
“Not to take away from last year’s team, because I came in very late last year and we had five days of camp right after I was hired,” Cauley said. “We installed the offense and defense in that time — something totally new for all of them. After that, I couldn’t touch them again until August. We were ill-prepared last year and trying to figure out which kid was better at which spot. At mid-season, we were like Joe Flax needs to be a defensive end and Chase Werth needs to be on the defensive line. We were trying to figure it out. This year, we knew were we wanted to be with the kids, and they knew where they wanted to be. We do have a better feel for the kids. This is the second year. They know what to expect from me, and I know what to expect from them.”