Rangers relish renewed spirit

Olivia Corya/The Herald
Josh Voegerl rushed for a team-best 760 yards last season for Forest Park, which is operating with a refreshed attitude and work ethic after the Rangers stumbled to a 1-9 finish last fall. Forest Park opens its season on the road Friday, visiting Gibson Southern at 7:30 p.m. EDT.

Herald Sports Editor

Over the summer when Forest Park’s football team competed in a 7-on-7 tournament at Jasper, the Rangers slipped behind early in a few of the first games they played. Just as was the case last fall, when the Rangers were sometimes swamped early and often throughout a season in which they won once in 10 games.

But where heads dipped and attitudes drooped last year when the Rangers trailed in games, the pattern deviated this summer.

Spirits remained abuzz. Effort got a little fiercer. And on a related note, comebacks and victories happened, to the point where the Rangers reached the championship of the tourney, falling by a touchdown to Jasper.

The Rangers realize it’s a whole lot different playing in full pads and inserting linemen into the equation, especially since that sector of the lineup still presents the most question marks. But it still illustrates the approach that’s been plotted this season. And everyone seems to be on board with the new vibe.

“Last year was just really embarrassing for us, and we definitely thought we could have done a lot better,” said Ranger senior running back and linebacker Josh Voegerl. “This year, we have people that can replace kids from last year. We just feel like we want to come into practice and work harder now and do the little things right and just go hard every play, because we don’t want a year like we had last year. ... Just the attitude overall has completely changed from last year.”

“Last year I thought we kind of got our head down after a couple touchdowns, we got down, the game was over. And it can’t be like that,” added second-year coach Ross Fuhs.

“Just simply getting some wins and being competitive in games can kind of turn your attitude around. It can’t be an attitude where you get down by a couple touchdowns, the game’s over. It’s got to be an attitude where you get down by a couple touchdowns, ”˜Let’s go. Let’s go out and get a couple turnovers and let’s score and change this game around.’”

Fuhs noticed changed long before the Rangers showed up for two-a-days a few weeks ago. He said the Rangers had a better summer in the weight room, and more importantly, turnout increased at summer workouts. Where Fuhs said the participation was hit-and-miss before and “I couldn’t make it” or “I overslept” were popular excuses for missing, more players were on board for every workout session.

Still, challenges loom.

A handful of seniors opted not to play this season, and the Rangers will also be without senior inside linebackers Alec Hassfurther and Ethan Knust for the first three games for disciplinary reasons. That’s left Fuhs, whose program contains 40 players top to bottom, scrambling to groom perhaps the greenest offensive line around.

Freshman Evan Weyer and sophomore Ryder Wehr are competing for the center slot, while sophomores Blake McCain and Justin Cline should inhabit the guard positions before Knust returns. At tackles are junior Mathew Olinger and senior Jared Wilgus.

The unit already underwent an initiation of sorts in last Friday’s scrimmage against Paoli. Fuhs acknowledged they were pushed around a little bit at the outset. By the end, though, they were pushing back.

“These sophomores are going to have to step in from maybe thinking they were going to play JV to starting on varsity right off the bat,” Fuhs said. “That’s been the hardest part. We told them, you’re going to play against some seniors, so there will be times that you’re going to take some lumps. There’s no doubt about that. But you’ve just got to get back, you’ve got to keep fighting and working hard. They know we have confidence in them, because we’re putting them there for a reason because we feel like they’re going to be able to step up and play.”

The rest of the offense contains more of a veteran touch.

Voegerl’s 760 rushing yards and six touchdowns were both team-highs last season, though a back injury could keep him out of Friday’s 7:30 p.m. EDT opener at Gibson Southern. Junior Noah Braunecker will also get some carries, and Hassfurther will factor in at the position when he returns.

Senior Trent Bayer (55-for-129, 732 yards, four TDs) returns for a second season at quarterback, with senior Reece Heilers and sophomore Eli Knust starting at receivers and senior Austin Egloff back at tight end. Voegerl said the Rangers have more capacity for variety, as they’ve explored beyond the I-formation and are trying more sets out of the slot and wishbone formations and occasionally with multiple receivers.

To Fuhs, the chief priority is consolidating on momentum. He called last year an ongoing case of “one step forward, two steps back” when promising drives were undermined by penalties and turnovers. A year ago, Forest Park’s turnovers margin was minus-3.

“Hopefully our decision-making will be a little bit better, and so far it has been,” Fuhs said.
Fuhs expressed more surety on defense, as more experience returns on that side of the ball.

Egloff and Wilgus are the anchors at defensive end, while Weyer, sophomore Jarrett Hopf and a handful of others contend at the tackle slots. Voegerl, Braunecker and Eli Knust are part of a linebacking corps that also features junior Jhazz Bieker and sophomore Josh Franchville. Piloting the backfield are senior cornerbacks Tristan Begle and Corbin Hendershot, while senior Bryce Bettag is back at safety and junior Joe Mesaris will also see time there.

Fuhs’ hope is that by now, the Rangers should be more versed in the zone defense tenets he installed last year, after they’d been accustomed to playing mostly man coverage coming up through the system. Fuhs acknowledged the Rangers probably needed a year to wade through the transition, and he pointed to a couple other conspirators to a tough 2012 season. About eight upperclass contributors missed time with injuries or concussions. And, Fuhs added, the Pocket Athletic Conference was as good as ever last season, with the likes of perennial contenders Southridge and Heritage Hills, plus conference champion North Posey and emergent Gibson Southern, which reached the Class 3A semistate.

Progress seems apparent within the Ranger camp, though Fuhs stopped short of guessing how that translates to a win total. All he wants is to compete better.

So far, he said, the group has made the mark.

“You can’t really put a number on it, but I’d like to think we’re going to be a lot more competitive and be in games a lot more,” Fuhs said. “I would like to think if our upperclassmen can stay healthy and if our young guys who are starting can kind of learn up to these first few games and catch on to the system and get up to varsity speed, I think we’ll have a chance to be real competitive.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.

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