Thunder Ridge football coach Joel Struckhoff lost several key players off last year’s team that made it to the quarterfinals of the Eight-Man Division II state playoffs. But the Longhorns had a strong incoming sophomore class, which gave Struckhoff high hopes for this fall.
So far, so good. Thunder Ridge is 4-1 heading into Friday night’s game at Osborne (2-3).
"Expectations for this season was see what we could do," Struckhoff said. "I knew we had some young guys with playing experience. Big sophomore class, several of those guys played last year. Had some young kids that had potential. They really lived up to that potential."
Known for being a running team in previous years, the Longhorns can win by both running or throwing the ball.
"Typically, when you think Thunder Ridge football, you think running game," Struckhoff said. "This year, we’ve kind of done a little bit of both. Pretty even this year, when most years it’s pretty lopsided running."
The Longhorns graduated standout Reece Struckhoff, the coach’s cousin, who rushed for 2,167 yards and 47 touchdowns in 2019. He gained 305 yards on the ground in a 64-60 playoff loss at Hutchinson-Central Christian. Thunder Ridge also graduated defensive end Riggs Reneberg, one of the top sack men in eight-man ball last fall, and an all-state lineman in Joseph Ferguson.
Dylan Bice, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound sophomore, moved from tight end to quarterback. He has rushed for a team-high 484 yards, averaging 11 yards per carry, with 10 TDs. Bice also has thrown for 874 yards and 10 touchdowns, completing 61 percent of his passes.
"He’s got a really good arm, and he’s a pretty good runner as well," Struckhoff said. "He gives some people matchup nightmares, because he can do both things very well."
Thunder Ridge has four players with at least 10 catches. Sophomore running back Jace Randall has a team-high 15 catches for 156 yards, while junior Daxton Dunlap is averaging 28 yards per catch with six TDs on 11 catches, and sophomore Kaleb Wagenblast also has 11 receptions, with three scores and averaging 22.8 yards per catch. Sophomore Dalton Bice has caught 10 balls for 108 yards and a touchdown.
"That’s one of the greatest parts of our team," Struckhoff said. "We have several athletes we can spread the ball out to. We’ve got several targets for Dylan."
The Longhorns like to emphasize the QB in the running game, but Struckhoff has other threats, too. Senior Jacob Barnes, the running back in the backfield when the Longhorns go to the Pistol look, has 429 yards rushing and two scores. Randall has 152 yards as another option.
"It’s a good system we run," Struckhoff said. "We’ve got three kids who can run the ball."
Defensively, the Longhorns can get after the quarterback. Senior defensive end Mark Ferguson has nine sacks and Wagenblast has 8.5 sacks at the other defensive end spot. Dylan Bice is the team’s leading tackler with 59 from his outside linebacker spot. Junior outside linebacker Olin Brown, in his first year out, is next with 57 stops.
"We had some big holes to fill from last year, had some guys really step up this year," Struckhoff said.
The goal this year is the same as every year -- win a state title. But first, Struckhoff is eyeing a district title. The Longhorns are tied for first in the district at 3-1, with their lone loss coming in Week 3, 21-18 against St. John’s/Tipton-Catholic. In that game, Dylan Bice played with an injured ankle and did not run the ball much, and did not play on defense. Still, the Longhorns had the ball inside the 2-yard line with less than a minute to play with first down, but could not score.
"Realistically, we probably should have won that game," Struckhoff said. "Good team there. That’s definitely one we would like to have back."
Struckhoff knows about winning, going back to his high school days at Thunder Ridge. The Longhorns won a state title his senior year, in 2011. He now thinks about winning a state title as a coach.
"One of my goals in life, it would be to win one as a coach as well," Struckhoff said. "Especially if it could be done at Thunder Ridge."