PLAINVILLE — Standing on the sidelines is nothing new to Grant Stephenson. As a punter at Pittsburg State, he waited outside the painted lines for his offense to reach fourth down and give him his chance to play.
As a graduate assistant, he lended a hand to the coaching staffs of Fort Hays State and Texas-Christian University. Last fall, he became an assistant coach for a 7-3 Beloit/St. John’s-Tipton team.
For the first time this season, he takes the sidelines as the shot caller, the face of the Plainville Cardinals and the head coach.
At just 31 years of age, Stephenson takes over the Cardinals after Joe Simon joined longtime pal Jon Webster as an assistant at La Crosse. Assistants Ryan Becker and Justin Casey have made the transition easy for Stephenson, whether it is getting organized for practice or getting to know people around the Plainville community.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve but the other coaches ... have done a phenomenal job helping me out,” Stephenson said. “They’ve made the transition and I’mglad I’ve got both of them by my side.
Even as a young head coach taking over a program that has seen it’s fair share of struggles in the past decade, despite winning the MCL and finishing 10-2 in 2011, Stephenson looks to the experiences he went through at his past coaching gigs to reduce the learning curve.
“It’s been a good process just because I’ve got to learn a lot through all the different stages,” Stephenson said. “I’m excited to be where I’m at and hope that things go well. You finally get to implement your own ideas and you just hope they work as a first-time head coach.”
Things will not come easy for Stephenson, though. With Simon — whose first and only head coaching position so far in his career was Plainville — gone, the Cardinals are starting from scratch and looking for positives from last year’s 3-6 team, which included an 0-4 home record. The Cardinals lost the first three contests in 2014 and scored just 123 points, despite allowing 229. Their three wins all came against losing teams. Junior Hayden Friend has seen the change as a positive one without too much of a learning curve.
It’s been a lot easier than I thought it would be,” Friend said. “I actually like the adjustment – it’s been a good adjustment.”
Friend, who has been part of Plainville’s back-to-back 400-meter relay state championship team, is one of the fastest players in the state. In 2014, he recorded 606 yards and eight scores on a team-high 124 carries. He also outgained any other Cardinal by nearly 800 yards, racking up 1,181 all-purpose yards. In his freshman campaign, Friend collected more than 1,000 all-purpose yards and 629 yards on the ground for the 5-5 Cardinals.
With such a versatile weapon to be presented with as a first-time head coach, Stephenson has recognized the hype around Friend and plans to use him to his advantage.
“He’s been great. He is fast and we plan on using his speed,” Stephenson said. “He’s a good leader. He helps everybody get lined up on defense and leads us on offense, too. He shows up and works hard everyday, stays positive and keeps the rest of the players positive, too.”
Experience does return on both sides of the ball around Friend. With seven offensive starters returning across from six defensive starters, Stephenson is not working with a completely blank slate. Hayden Gillum is among the coveted returners for Plainville as he recorded 79 tackles last season as a freshman, 24 more than the next closest total. Next to Gillum is the next three top tacklers, including Justin Reif, a 6-3 lineman who collected a team-high six sacks last season.
“We have a pretty good offensive line — big and strong — and good receivers,” Friend said. “I like everyone out here. We’re all really close, all of us are. We’re a family.”
With three returners on the offensive line, Friend feels confident that the line will open holes for him to get into space and turn on the burners downfield for the Cardinals.
“It makes you fell pretty positive,” Friend said. “If we can keep things going right, I think we’ll have a good season.”
Stephenson notes that playing in the ever competitive Mid-Continent League does not make winning come easy.
“It’s definitely a tough league,” Friend said. “There’s a few bigger, tougher teams that we’ll have to play but that’s how you get better. You don’t get better just playing teams that you think you’re gonna easily beat from week to week. It’s fun having this type of challenge and playing better teams because then it pushes us and me as a coach and the players and everybody to want to strive to become better.”
But with the returners Plainville has and Stephenson, who Friend notes as someone who works through practice at a high tempo and is a good teacher, Friend’s goal is to make a splash in the postseason.
“That’s really our goal. We don’t really just wanna get to the playoffs, but win a couple games once we get to the playoffs,” Friend said. “That’s been our motivation. We worked extremely hard this summer and we’re gonna try to get back there.”