Signs point to upturn for hungry Cats

Herald file photo
Jasper’s Ryan Ewing, right, congratulated Sam DeWitt after DeWitt scored a touchdown last year when the Wildcats finished the season 5-5. That marked the first time in 27 years the Wildcats didn’t finish with a winning record, which they’re motivated to change this season with some extra motivation and plenty of offensive weapons at their disposal. Their first test comes in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. season opener at home against Evansville Memorial.


Around the time Jasper football players showed up to preseason camp a few weeks ago, their locker room became a haunted house.

Not dimly lit and not booby-trapped. But that number. That number sure was haunting. Signs went up simply saying “5-5,” as a reminder of last year’s won-loss ledger. Jasper’s first time since 1989 without a winning record. And you couldn’t miss those signs.

“Stuck ’em on doors before we walked in somewhere. Just everywhere,” Wildcat senior Sam DeWitt said.

“Every single place you could see them,” classmate Addison Hoffman added.

Added DeWitt: “Let’s just say in the offseason, that was the thing to say: ‘This is why you were 5-5.’”

Coach Tony Ahrens can rattle off some of those culprits: an unusually high number of sophomores and junior thrust into varsity action; ill-timed penalties; a tendency to lose steam physically late in games; and as much as anything, a mental mindset that hadn’t reached full maturity and remains a work in progress, Ahrens said.

Yet after all the tough love Ahrens and his staff force-fed last year’s team, the Cats think that with the proper approach they can maximize the factors working in their favor this season. A defense that’s quicker overall. A backfield busting with veteran skill guys and weapons galore.

“I think we have a prideful group that recognizes we don’t want to perform like that,” Ahrens said of last year’s finish. “We’re just not built like that around here. We had some good training in the offseason, and our kids seem to be pretty focused right now, trying to figure out what we need to do.

“We’ve got some really good players that need to step up and showcase what they can do.”

With options come variety, as Ahrens expects he’s got the personnel to either go quicker with senior Ryan Ewing (844 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016) or junior Reece Milligan (who ran for 157 yards in the sectional against Evansville Harrison with Ewing out injured), or operate more downhill with a slew of fullback options — seniors Anthony Kluemper, Logan Niehaus and DeWitt plus juniors Raife Milligan and Zach Flynn.

Justin Persohn returns at quarterback after completing 52 percent of his passes for 1,125 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and he’ll be tasked with guiding a team that had a minus-1 turnover margin a year ago. He’ll operate behind an offensive line big on juniors, with Tyson Schwenk (center), Jadon Mehringer (right tackle), Trevor Krapf (left tackle), Lawson Land (left guard) and Carter Gentry (right guard) with Hoffman and junior Phillip Noblitt operating at tight ends. Reece Milligan will also figure into a receiving corps that includes seniors Malik Chatman, Eric Nordhoff and Jacob Lents and junior Isaac Bartley.

In last Friday’s scrimmage against Evansville North, Ahrens said the offense found its footing the longer the Cats were on the field. And when it comes to endurance, Jasper feels like it’s in a better place now.

“Coaches really went hard on us about conditioning, so we’ll be able to play all four quarters hard,” said Chatman, who owed the upgrade to nothing but elemental methods. “Just a whole lot of running. Just trying to push yourself further than what you’re used to.”

Added Ahrens: “Our kids I think have got a little bit better edge, but we’re going to have to improve that, because you’ve got to play well in the second half, and if you’re not in good shape or you’re not willing to play a little uncomfortable, you get stuck quick. You’ve got to understand what it really means to get out there and play with an attitude of you’re going to do your part, but at the same time, you’re going to work hard.”

Many of the same Wildcat names will populate the defensive side of the ball, starting with a familiar crew of linebackers in DeWitt, Flynn, Niehaus and junior Kyle Hedinger. Kluemper occupies a slot at defensive end after notching 7 1/2 sacks last season and totaling 45 tackles behind team leaders Flynn (56) and DeWitt (50), while the Cats feature a senior flair in the backfield with Chatman (strong safety), Nordhoff (free safety) and Lents and Garrett Jacob (cornerbacks) with junior Caden Schmitt (free safety) also in the mix.

Hoffman, Gentry and Mehringer will fill in at tackles with junior Zach Rydberg operating at nose guard for a defense that’s likely to be taxed by Evansville Memorial in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. season opener at Jerry Brewer Alumni Stadium. While the Tigers rang up 35 first-half points on Jasper a year ago and quarterback Michael Lindauer passed for a pair of touchdowns, Ahrens stressed the biggest issue was Memorial ran the ball with gusto and the Cats struggled to clot the damage, allowing 293 rushing yards. Ahrens also wants his guys to mind the smaller details, too, such as Memorial’s tendency to use long snap counts closer to the goal line to sucker foes offsides.

“Some of these guys that had to play got a little bit of experience, and they’re now a year older, a little bit wiser to what it means to play a varsity game on Friday,” Ahrens said.

Part of Jasper’s realization has been how seniors steer the ship. And that’s where guys like Kluemper and DeWitt come in.

“I realize now how important that is in practice to bring that to a game,” said DeWitt, who described the practice atmosphere as more mellow last season; he’s been pushing the more intense variety that was typical of two years ago in his sophomore season. “We’ve been trying to hammer those guys so they can realize what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

If the “want to” element intersects with experience, talent and depth, the Cats could be well on their way. Yet Hoffman doesn’t have to be reminded the work yet to accomplish and the absence of guarantees.

“Last year, it’s not the not the season that we wanted, but I think it was helpful in a way,” Hoffman said. “This year, we’re going into the season knowing that we can’t just think, ‘Just because we’re Jasper we’re going to be good.’ We have to work at everything we do.”

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