MOUNDSVILLE –Newly named John Marshall coach Justin Kropka is used to rebuilding a team — after all, he did help get Harrison Central’s football program to where it is today.
Those Huskies began the program winning nine of their first 60 games in school history before Kropka helped guide them to a 73-57 mark over the next 13 seasons.
Now, after spending the last three years as an assistant coach at Wheeling University, Kropka is faced with a new task and although the current John Marshall program does have solid numbers with 50 kids coming out for the varsity team and a veteran coaching staff, the Monarchs will be rebuilding after graduating a very talented senior class full of starters all over the field.
“Those years at Harrison, we built that thing from scratch,” Kropka said. “There are a ton of things that the second time around — the experience I gained at Harrison Central gives us a little bit of an accelerant to the rebuild but it has caused me to go back and call on some of those past experiences to keep my head about me a little bit.”
John Marshall loses its quarterback in Derrick Derrow, standout receiver and defensive back in Bryce Rayl and OVAC All-Stars and dynamic duo in the backfield in tailbacks Dalton Flowers and Alex Burton, just to name a few.
Rayl earned an All-Valley selection for forcing and recovering six fumbles, recording 31 tackles and two interceptions, one of which he raced back to the endzone for a touchdown. He also paced the receiving corps with 27 catches, 360 yards and six touchdowns.
Flowers brought home second team all-state honors last year as he galloped for 1,384 yards and 16 touchdowns, followed by Burton’s 887 yards and nine scores.
“We currently don’t have a kid on the team who has a varsity carry or has thrown a varsity pass,” Kropka said. “So we are starting on the ground floor. We are awfully young and the smallest class on the team is our seniors. We lost an all-state tailback, we lost our quarterback, both receivers so we are probably one of the most inexperienced teams you will find in the valley but the good thing is we are all learning together.”
Taking over at quarterback for the Monarchs this season will be junior Jacob Coffield (6-foot-1, 185 pounds), who is already taking steps forward and is progressing in his new role.
Coach Justin Kropka on the upcoming campaign
“It’s his first time starting a varsity game, which is Aug. 27 at University and that is not an easy opener,” Kropka said. “He’s got a good arm, he can run a little bit, and he just has the mental aspect for the game. He’s learning the system, which will come with time, but he’s getting better. Between coach Mark Cisar and myself there is no sugar coating anything and he is learning how to take coaching well and he has progressed a great deal within the last two weeks.”
Kropka is also excited about the talent the team has found at backup quarterback in junior Brennan Sobutka (6-2, 160).
“This biggest surprise is our No. 2 in Brennan Sobutka,” Kropka said. “He’s never played quarterback but I just knew he was a competitor. He’s grown leaps and bounds.
“He plays three sports and I like my quarterbacks to at-least play two and preferably three because that means they’ve been under fire before, so I kind of drafted him to play QB out of the blue and he has really impressed me as far as making the right reads and making the throws. He’s done a great job and now we feel a lot more comfortable with our No. 2 guy. Going into the year I knew we had Coffield but I wasn’t sure about our No. 2 but he has really had a great July and August.”
Sophomore Andrew Lyons (5-10, 155) will also supply depth at quarterback.
Filling the shoes of Flowers and Burton won’t be easy but senior Ben McCardle (5-10, 200) will handle the load at running back with classmate Nate Menendez (5-10, 210) taking over the role of fullback.
Freshman Klypson Wallace (5-8, 175) has come on strong early on and is in position to be the backup running back, while his brother, junior Ethan Wallace (5-10, 165) and junior J.D. Wells (5-6, 150) are also in line to get carries this season.
“We had two really good tailbacks last year so we’re starting fresh this year,” Kropka said. “We’re actually moving former fullback Ben McCardle to tailback and Nate Menendez will take over the fullback job. Freshman Klypson Wallace has actually risen up the ranks quickly, who right now will probably serve as our No. 2. We think he has a real bright future.
“We like Ethan Wallace, as well. He has done a really nice job and J.D. Wells is another tailback so we have a handful of varsity running backs and a lot of guys who can help us win football games.”
Other backs in the mix are juniors Mickey Goddard (5-7, 140) and Luke Burton (5-10, 160), along with sophomores Brady Deem (5-9, 210) and Wyatt McClure (5-10, 165).
“I-form is our base formation but we run a lot of three-receiver sets, a lot of shotgun and a lot of pistol,” Kropka said. “I think our offensive scheme and the way we do things allows us to take advantage of our personnel. I think we’re diverse enough that if we have to throw it 40 times we can do it and if we have to run it 40 times we can do that, too. It all depends on matchups and what the opposition has personnel-wise.”
The running backs will be following a solid line in seniors Alex Francis (5-11, 265), Ethan Neely (5-11, 220) and Grant Neiswonger (5-10, 240), along with juniors Cole Porter (6-4, 315) and Bryce Cook (5-11, 225).
“Cole Porter will play right tackle and he has made a lot of strides,” Kropka said. “He has changed his body in six months as much as I’ve seen a kid do it. He really worked hard in the weight room this winter and trained and he looks like some of the guys I coached at Wheeling University. He has worked hard and looks athletic at 315 pounds.
“Right guard will be Ethan Neely. He’s slim and trim. He’s pretty athletic and plays baseball. At center we have Alex Francis, who bought into the weights and stayed after to get snaps in because he hadn’t played center before but he put the time in and has done a great job for us. Our left guard Grant Nieswonger plays three sports and has really good feet and has taken to our offense really well. Bryce Cook will be our left tackle and we like the way he moves.
“We honestly feel like we have six starters on the line because we feel like (junior) Jace Riding (5-10, 215) can start a game for us, too. He can play three different spots for us up front and we won’t miss a beat when he is in there. He may end up playing more than any lineman we have because he can fit at any position.”
Others who could see time on the line are seniors Braden Hagedorn (5-11, 255), Jordan Rouse (5-8, 235) and Logan Bandy (5-10, 170), juniors Ty Rogers (5-10, 210) and Matthew Wright (5-10, 205), and sophomores Victor McElwee (6-2, 275), Jason Minor (5-9, 245), Tanen McNeal (5-11, 215), Scott Schenerlein (6-0, 250), Andreas Hunter (6-4, 300) and Caleb Yates (6-1, 230).
“We really do feel like we have solid varsity depth on the offensive line,” Kropka said.
“We have eight or nine guys who can help us up front.”
John Marshall wide receivers for the upcoming year include seniors Patrick Ostrander (5-10, 185), Koda Moore (6-3, 170) and Noah Beckett (5-10, 160), juniors Brennan Sobutka, Braden Sobutka (6-2, 160), Jace Bartsch (5-8, 140), Zane Murphy (5-8, 150), Cody Harding (5-9, 155), Ashton Collett (5-7, 145) and Ryan Ward (5-8, 155), sophomores Mason Hagedorn (5-10, 155), Wyatt Korn (5-8, 145), Tyler Cain (5-10, 150), DiMario White (5-8, 155) and Curtus Whorton (5-10, 150) and freshman Wesley Hughes (5-8, 150), who has made a quick impact in camp.
“I don’t think any of them played wide receiver in a varsity game last year,” Kropka said. “We’re extraordinarily young at receiver but the Sobutka brothers will be there. Braden is our true No. 1. He’s got height and knows how to run routes and get open. We focused most of our time with Brennan on playing QB but he’ll be that kind of player, too.
“Noah Beckett, we can line him up anywhere. He is Mr. Incredible. Him and Koda Moore have kind of taken over the leadership role. Moore is a tall kid and we like his hands, too.
“Ashton Collett will be in the slot. He’s a quick guy, while DiMario White had a great camp. He’ll touch the ball this year.
“Wesley Hughes is a freshman and started at the bottom of the depth chart but he has worked his way up the chart to the varsity. He certainly caught our eyes at camp and has a chance down the road to be an All-Valley kid.”
Tight ends include seniors Jared Kerekes (5-10, 200) and Gage Hoskins (6-1, 190) and juniors Alex Thomas (5-11, 175) and Gage Johnson (6-0, 170).
On defense, Menendez and McCardle will lead the team at inside linebacker.
“Our defense starts and finishes with our two linebackers,” Kropka said. “That’s the one place on the team where we have experience. Our schemes are similar from last year’s so those guys get what we’re doing. We need McCardle and Menendez to combine for 160 or 170 tackles for us to be successful.”
Coffield and Hartman will see time at outside backer.
“I’d like to get Coffield off the field sometimes because he is our quarterback but he is an excellent outside linebacker,” Kropka said. “On the other side, Hartman battled his way into a top two or three spot so he’ll see time there.”
Neely, Thomas, Hoskins, Kerekes, Braden Hagedorn, Neiswonger, Cook and Porter will be top standouts on the defensive line and will spend time rotating in and out to keep others fresh and well-rested.
At defensive back, the Sobutka brothers will see time, along with Beckett and Moore at the safety spots.
Sophomore Connor Fitzpatrick (5-8, 150) will serve as the kicker and has already left his mark.
“Connor has had a great camp,” he said. “He’s really impressive. He’s constantly hitting 40-45-yard field goals in practice and I try to distract him. Down the road he could be an All-Valley kid.”
Coffield will also do the punting and Faith Wachter (5-3, 115) will be the backup kicker.
Joining Kropka is a veteran coaching staff of Dirk Fitch, Bruce Stiles, Mark Cisar, Griffin Yocum, Bill Timko, Keith Knapp, Joel Sansone, Geno Polsinelli, Joe Sturgill, Austin Yackey and Cayden Honeywell.
“I’m very fortunate that all those guys wanted to do it with me,” Kropka said. “I called some of them … interested in being a part of our staff.
“It’s when your peers think of you in that light, that’s when it means a lot. Some of those guys I went against and I knew how good of coaches they were, so for them to want to be a part of what we’re building here makes my job easier.”