By Kyle Shaner
VERSAILLES – On the schedule for the 2016 Versailles football team are four programs that have won Ohio High School Athletic Association state championships in the past two seasons.
The Tigers will have to play all four in a one-month span from Sept. 23 through Oct. 21 beginning with 2014 Division VII state champion Marion Local and culminating with 2014 Division VI state champion Minster. Along with those two powerhouses is 2015 Division VII state champion Fort Recovery on Sept. 30 and four-time defending Division V state champion Coldwater on Oct. 14.
“That’s why we take it one week at a time,” Versailles coach Adam Miller said. “Try not to look at the season as a whole.”
Versailles’ schedule would be a daunting task for any team but could be very treacherous for a Tiger squad that has a lot of holes to fill from last year’s team, which went 4-6 following a playoff appearance in 2014.
Miller likes the potential of his team but concedes that most of his players haven’t yet proven themselves in varsity games.
“Coming into this year I think we have a lot of potential to do some good things,” he said. “The biggest thing up in the air is we don’t have a whole lot of experience coming back. We do have some returning starters.”
Perhaps the biggest hole to fill is left by running back Collin Peters, who earned first team all-Midwest Athletic Conferences last year after running for almost 1,200 yards as a senior.
Instead of trying to replace Peters with a single player, Versailles is changing to a Wing-T offense with Kyle Subler, George Grow, Noah Grisez, Garrett Thompson, Kurtis Rutschilling and Aaron Mangen sharing the running back duties.
“Instead of showcasing one running back, we felt like we have several good running backs,” Miller said. “We want to try to get more running backs on the field.
“There’s quite a few of them. It’s been a good thing because we feel like a lot of those guys are interchangeable. They’re all very good athletes, and they’ve worked hard in the weight room. The hard part is going to be narrowing it down to the three we want to put out there.”
Versailles also has to replace quarterback Jared Niekamp, who threw for more than 1,300 yards as a senior last year.
Alex Wendel, who caught 32 passes as a receiver in 2015, is leading the quarterback competition for Versailles despite not having played the position since his freshman year in 2013.
Wendel is being pushed for the starting position by Noah Waymire. Also in the mix is Keaton McEldowney, who has been limited this summer by injuries.
Versailles will utilize multiple offensive packages, including looks with one receiver and one tight end and others with two tight ends.
The Tigers expect big things from AJ Ahrens as their starting tight, Miller said, and also expect Jacob Rismiller to play well as the second tight end. Wendel and McEldowney are the leading candidates to play wide receiver if they’re not in at quarterback.
“We really don’t have many receivers right now just because of changing the offense some of those guys that were receivers have moved to running back,” Miller said.
Versailles has a veteran group on the offensive line with five seniors currently slated for starting spots.
Jacob Heiktamp will start at left tackle for a third consecutive season. Eric Knapke has moved from center to left guard, and Bo Bey is moving into the starting center spot. Cole Schlater is slated to be the starting right guard while Grant Keller returns as the starting right tackle. Jeffery Ware and Ben Albers also are pushing for playing time along the line.
On defense Versailles will continue to employ a 4-3 scheme.
Levi Sherman and Louden Keihl are leading the way for playing time at defensive tackle. At end, the Tigers will rotate in a number of players, most of whom also are playing offensive line, to keep them fresh.
“Defensive ends, I feel like we’re sitting very well with them,” Miller said. “We’ve got probably six guys that can play at the varsity level.”
Jonny Moorman and Kurtis Rutschilling, who each had 90 tackles last season, return to lead the Versailles defense from the linebacker position.
“Those two are back to kind of lead the defense,” Miller said, adding the third linebacker spot alongside them is still up for grabs.
In the defensive backfield Versailles has a pair of three-year starters in Sam Barga and Mitchell Paulus. They’ll be joined by George Grow and Tanner Bey to form an athletic group.
“We’re pretty confident with our defense,” Miller said.
Versailles will be tested right away as the Tigers begin the season with Celina, a Division III team that made the OHSAA playoffs last year. They then face a perennially tough opponent in Valley View before moving into their challenging MAC schedule.
“Our non-conference schedule is pretty difficult in my opinion,” Miller said. “Celina is a good-sized school, and they always have some good, hard-nosed players. It’s always important to get that first win of the season. Valley View, they usually do pretty well in their league so as far as computer points go it’s good to get those non-league wins to help yourself out for a chance at the playoffs.”
Miller would like to see his team contend for a playoff spot in 2016 after a disappointing 2015 season.
“Looking at last year, it’s disappointing to go 4-6, but there were four games that could have went the other way, and you could be looking as good as 8-2,” he said.
To be able to contend for the playoffs, Miller knows that the Tigers will have to limit their mistakes as there isn’t much room for error with their tough schedule.
“We tell the kids all the time our schedule is tough enough,” he said. “We don’t need to make it any harder on ourselves.”
Kyle Shaner may be reached at 937-569-4316. Follow me on Twitter @KShanerAdvocate or get updates on Facebook by searching Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to dailyadvocate.com.