GIBSON CITY - Last season the Falcons looked doubt and unknown expectations straight in the eye and danced their way to yet another playoff berth that few expected.
After punching their ticket into the playoffs with their regular season win over Fisher, the team put aside their chance to gloat and make known what they had accomplished. They acted like they had been there before, because they had.
Now the squad enters a season with the opposite expectation thanks to the return of almost the entire crew that went 6-3 in last year’s regular season.
But keeping that same perspective and focus of last season is all we can expect from this group, even when expectations are high.
“We know we’ve got the potential, but potential means nothing if we don’t follow through,” senior wideout Zach Johnson said.
Johnson’s own leadership summarized the way these Falcons carry themselves. The wideout walked up to Fisher’s head coach Matt Leng after the win last fall and gave him some words of encouragement after a rough year for the Bunnies.
Leng then approached Falcon coach Mike Allen at an awards event and told him how impressed he was with the young man and what was said in that Friday night exchange.
But it wasn’t just Johnson who stood out. His leadership and sportsmanship was a representation of the jersey he wore alongside a few dozen other young men who have bought into the Falcon football culture.
And it’s that buy-in of the culture that has Allen both excited and proud of the way the team is handling the high expectations caused by the return of so many leaders.
“It’s given our kids a lot of confidence already,” he said. “Last week was probably the most enjoyable week of two-a-days that I’ve had in 15 years. The kids came in and knew what to do, so we were able to review and move on. Attitudes have been wonderful. Work ethic has been wonderful, and the cherry on top has been our leadership.”
The leadership is coming from all areas too, as a number of underclassmen are taking ownership, and the seniors are taking notice.
“We have a big group of leaders, whether captain or not,” tight end James Fairfield said. “Everyone is willing to step up to the plate.”
A few weeks into camp, five water bottles were left out, leaving Coach Allen to question who they belonged to.
Some freshmen suggested they claim them as their own, so nobody would get in trouble. But when they got up to claim the bottles, the rest of the group stood up and said they belonged to everyone, uttering, “No, it’s all of ours. We’re a team. When someone messes up, we all do.”
Part of the close bond this group has comes from winning three youth football league championships together when the junior and senior class were teammates. But the biggest contributor is being able to experience a second straight year with almost every teammate remaining.
“Last year we really weren’t sure what to expect, and you could tell all summer with the team,” running back Nick Meunier said. “The way we gelled (last summer), we weren’t quite as close. This year it’s completely different. Groups of guys on any given night will all be hanging out. I think that’s the biggest difference and what I think will contribute most to how well we do this year.”
Roughly 45 of the team’s 54 members recently went to Buffalo Wild Wings on an impromptu trip, just for fun, adding to the notion that this group just might like each other.
“And they did that on their own,” Allen added.
Most of the team’s time together this summer has been in the weight room, which Allen said is the reason this group is the strongest team top to bottom he’s ever had.
“The guys worked hard in the weight room this summer,” he said. “Each player saw the other players working hard, and they held each other accountable. There were a couple arguments; if someone didn’t think someone else was working hard, they called them out. To hold their teammates accountable, plus themselves, is something that is exciting as a coach. Our strength, our speed and our numbers I think are going to be strengths for us.”
As the excitement builds for a season with so much promise, Allen and the Falcon boys continue to set those expectations aside and focus on keeping the same attitude regardless of the outcome.
“I know expectations are high,” Allen said. “But like we’ve always done it, we’re not going to look ahead to anything. We’re focusing on today’s practice, and we’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. I can’t say enough good things right now. Whatever the season brings, this is a great group of young men.”
The main spots GCMS will need to fill are at wide receiver, where departed seniors Tyler Hinshaw, Devyn List and T.J. Roesch played key roles.
Zach Johnson is the only starting receiver back with the group, but every other position on offense is filled with the main contributor from last season.
Keegan Allen enters his junior year with a full year as the starting quarterback under his belt, giving the team its first season with an experienced quarterback in a few years.
Seniors Nick Meunier and Key-Shawn Girkin will be the speedy running backs, while sophomore Mitch McNutt ads power to the run game.
The entire offensive line is back to clear the way for the deep running back core and even added a few new members who should contribute right away.
Look to see James Fairfield’s development at tight end and possibly some split time with Sam Baillie, as the two add some taller targets for Keegan Allen.
The defense returns its top five tacklers—Tucker Cribbett, Trevor Eldgridge, Mitch McNutt, Key-Shawn Girkin and Nick Meunier—and looks to fill positions in the secondary left by Devyn List and Tyler Hinshaw.
Coach Chad Augspurger called their greatest strength the group’s experience, making note of the team’s knowledge of the game.
“We’re extremely strong up front,” he said. “We have speed in the secondary. We have a lot of experienced guys coming back. They understand the game.”
James Fairfield - TE
Playing in his first varsity football season as a senior, Fairfield is hoping to give Keegan Allen a tall target to throw to.
“He doesn’t have as much experience, but he’s a very smart player. He’s picking up things really quick. He understands how to use his leverage, his long arms, and he’s really doing a great job for us so far. He’s an athlete plus he’s a competitor. He wants to play and wants to get better.” - Defensive Coordinator Chad Augspurger
Alex Rosenbaum - C
“He’s going to be big at center, leading the offensive line this year, just telling us what to do,” -Tristan Smith
Conner Bowen - Linebacker
“He’s going to be a real big contributor. He played some on varsity last year, but right now he’s looking at starting defensive middle backer, and that’s a pretty big step up from JV play and occasional fourth quarter play when the team is up and down.” - Nick Meunier
“We’re going to really have to count on him this year. We know he can do it. He’s just got to get comfortable. He’s a strong kid.”“ - Zach Johnson
Lane Timmons - Defensive Line
“He moved here earlier this summer, and he’s a big body, and he’s been working hard in practice. Everyday I think he’s improving. By the time we get around to some games, he could make a real difference on the defensive front.” - Nick Meunier
Friday, Aug. 28 at Leroy, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 4 vs. Tremont, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 12 vs. Crossroads Christian Academy, 2 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 18 at Flanagan, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 25 Homecoming vs. PBL, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 2 at Ridgeview, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 9 at Heyworth, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 16 vs. Fieldcrest, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 23 vs. Fisher, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 30 IHSA Playoffs, 7p.m