Spartans have the size, seek state satisfaction

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE • The Grundy Center football team returns 18 letterwinners from last year’s squad. Pictured are front row: (from left) Tanner Phillips, Jake Bangasser, Drew Rathe, Sawyer Bowen, Austin Knaack, Jesse Mackie and Caleb Kuiper; middle row: Aaron Havens, Sage Klar, Nolan Freeman and Brody Mackie; back row: Mathew Sternhagen, Josh Kuiper, Payton McMartin, Cam Steenhoek, Jordan Hook, Cade Rohler and Tanner Appel.

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE • The Grundy Center football team returns 18 letterwinners from last year’s squad. Pictured are front row: (from left) Tanner Phillips, Jake Bangasser, Drew Rathe, Sawyer Bowen, Austin Knaack, Jesse Mackie and Caleb Kuiper; middle row: Aaron Havens, Sage Klar, Nolan Freeman and Brody Mackie; back row: Mathew Sternhagen, Josh Kuiper, Payton McMartin, Cam Steenhoek, Jordan Hook, Cade Rohler and Tanner Appel.

GRUNDY CENTER — The statistics showed what everybody knew: Bryce Flater was one of the top running backs in the state the last two years.

What Grundy Center head football coach Brent Thoren sees is the return of an offensive line that cleared the way for that tailback to the tune of more than 2,000 yards each season, the latter of which didn’t even yield a much-anticipated playoff berth.

Losses to three highly-ranked teams, including a season-opening, 7-6 setback at the hands of eventual two-time Class A state champion and archrival Gladbrook-Reinbeck, spoiled the Spartans’ 2016 campaign but motivated those returning for this year.

Thoren has to look no further than the big guys up front to see the possibilities for 2017.

“Bryce was incredibly explosive, very gifted, but there’s also a reason Bryce was successful, and that’s the nice thing that we have coming back is we have an offensive line that has some experience and we can lean on those guys,” Thoren said. “Whoever replaces him in the backfield, I’m very confident they’ll do a great job. We’ve got a nice nucleus to build around, and so while Bryce was a phenomenal athlete and a great kid to coach, he was a byproduct of some other things within our offense as well.”

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Grundy Center returns four of seven first-team all-District 3 selections, and all of them are on the offensive line. Junior Mathew Sternhagen (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) will join the likes of seniors Josh Kuiper (6-2, 215), Cade Rohler (6-1, 250), Nolan Freeman (5-10, 230) and Jordan Hook (6-4, 270) in hopes of clearing plenty of room for one of any number of potential Spartan ball carriers to run.

“They have a really high ceiling and I think every day they come to work it’s something they’re willing to do is get better at their craft together and by themselves, and I think that’s what makes them such a neat group,” Thoren said. “They’re really coachable and they’re incredibly intelligent and yet there’s not a level of satisfaction with where they’re at right now. They want to get better … and it ultimately makes us collectively better as a team with that attitude and it spreads to everybody else too.”

The backfield rotation looks to include a pair of juniors in Caleb Kuiper and Austin Knaack, who carried the ball on the junior varsity squad a year ago, senior fullback Sage Klar, and senior transfer Zach Grant. Grant was the second-leading rusher on the state-qualifying 8-man team at Central Community (Elkader) last fall.

“We’re really excited about the guys we have who can play the position that we have to choose from, and there’s a ton of competition in practice right now,” Thoren said. “We’ve got a bunch of different kinds of guys to run with and that’s kind of the cool thing about it is, what direction do we want to go with it.

“We know we want to run the ball and we’ve got guys who are very capable now of getting the ball from different spots on the field, and that really opens up a lot of options for us.”

Thoren will again turn to senior Jake Bangasser to take the snaps at quarterback. The Spartans, who were sixth in Class A last year rushing for 2,675 yards, threw for fewer than 800 yet still had the second-most potent offense among non-playoff teams. Handing off to Flater was the fallback option last season, so Thoren believes a less predictable attack will produce an equally prolific offensive output behind a powerful set of linemen.

“I think from that standpoint we might be a little tougher to defend, and that kind of plays into our favor a little bit,” he said. “[Opponents] know what we’ve got up front and we want to run the football, there’s no doubt about that.”

Led by Flater, who is now a freshman linebacker at Northern Iowa, Grundy Center produced an average of 40 points per game while allowing just 17.7, yet a 6-3 record included two losses to ranked foes in district play. St. Ansgar was a state semifinalist and West Hancock reached the quarterfinals while the Spartans were forced to stay at home.

“I think the kids look at it as unfinished business,” Thoren said. “As we trained in the offseason, no one really mentioned any particular game but there’s just things that we left out on the field that we felt we could have done better at. I think we’ve addressed some of that stuff … so hopefully it translates to the field.

“I like our team, I like our guys and I think we can be pretty competitive in a lot of the games we play in.”

The Spartans’ schedule starts with the 99th and potentially final meeting between Grundy Center and Gladbrook-Reinbeck. The Rebels are headed to 8-man football next season due to shrinking enrollment, and the longest-running rivalry in the state is staring at its end. District foes St. Ansgar and West Hancock are expected to present the Spartans’ heftiest challenges in District 3 play once again.

“It’s a challenging schedule but we’re excited about the opportunities,” said Thoren. “It’s cliché but we can’t overlook anybody on this schedule. We have the two-time defending state champs as the first game of the year and they haven’t been beaten in two years.

“We have to be ready every single week to play.”