Last season was fairly chaotic for the AFC football team. Second-year coach Ben Mershon expects a little more consistency in 2022.
After first moving to eight-man football and then ultimately canceling their varsity season in the spring of the COVID year in 2021, the Raiders were forced to play a JV schedule for the second half of last fall because of low numbers due to several season-ending injuries suffered early in the schedule.
But after losing only one senior from last year’s team, AFC now has more experience thanks in part to a much larger group of 12th graders this fall.
“It feels great to have so many guys back. We’re senior-heavy this year, and we’re just glad to be back out here, to be honest. I feel pretty strongly about this year,” senior quarterback Carson Rueff said. “With four years’ experience, pretty much half the kids on our varsity team are seniors, it gives us more confidence going into the season.”
Mershon is also more confident in his second year coaching eight-man football. In his first season as a varsity coach last fall, not only did injuries hamper what he was able to accomplish, but he admits he wasn’t as ready for the style of play in eight-man as he thought he would be.
But he feels that now he understands the game a little better, and has players who have experienced it as well, he’s much more comfortable with what to expect.
“I was so used to 11-man football, and I thought I’d come here and it would be easy going to eight-man – it was not. That was a big kick in the butt,” he said. “It was not easy, it was actually really hard, but now I’ve got a year under my belt and I’m a little more confident this year with what we’re going to, and with these players. It’s a great group of kids here.”
The bond between the coach and his players is also far ahead of where it was last season. With a son close to the players’ ages last year, Mershon knew who some of the players were and was aware of their capabilities.
But being hired in the short period between the 2021 spring and fall seasons, he didn’t have a lot of time to build a rapport and earn his players’ confidence.
“We’re definitely farther ahead of where we were last year,” Mershon said. “I really feel like last year with the kids, they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them, so it was kind of a trust that we were trying to build last year. Then injuries started hitting us, so that didn’t help things.
“This year, I really feel like we all came together as a team and we’re going to play as one. A lot of kids were in the weight room in the offseason, which is great. A lot of kids seem to be more dedicated this year, and I love to see that.”
The players have certainly bought in, both in the offseason and during the summer workouts. And having an entire year now to get to know his full – and healthy – roster, Mershon feels like his team will look very different on the field this fall.
Rueff agrees that the comfort level between the players and their coach will be a key factor for the Raiders.
“The second year with him being head coach, everybody’s more comfortable with his coaching style and everybody’s adapting to it,” he said. “I feel like this year we’re going to really put that relationship to good use and be more competitive because of it.”
According to another senior captain, that competitiveness starts up front.
“I expect a lot out of the guys; I expect more out of the linemen than anything,” Kaleb Golding said. “I’m the biggest guy out here, so I’m helping the rest of the guys, and they’re getting pretty competitive against me, so I expect a lot out of the linemen this year. We can’t do anything else without good line play, and we’ve got to help make the wide receivers and quarterbacks and running backs look good. We’ve got to do the dirty work, and I think we’ll be better at that this year.”
With only a few varsity games last season, there aren’t many stats for the Raiders to build on. But with Rueff back at the helm of the offense, main running backs Auden Polk and Sean Lauer returning to the backfield, and the tall and lanky Lane Koning back at the receiver position, the AFC offense should look more in sync this season.
Mershon said the key is to play to the strengths of his roster, and that might include more of a passing game than just lining up and pounding away with the run.
On the other side of the ball, Golding expects a more aggressive and confident defense, and says the scheme under a new coordinator fits well with the personnel, which should also help the competitiveness.
As the Raiders continue to rebuild, they hope to take a big step this season – but success will be measured by the team meeting little goals throughout the fall.
“To be successful, we just have to make sure that everybody went out and tried their best and had a good time,” Golding said. “I don’t really look at far-off goals, I just come out here everyday trying to get better. We’re going to take it day by day and just get better. I love being around this team, and we’re working hard, and that will lead to success.”