Analysis | Friday Night Drive

High-powered offense, backfield depth stand out for reigning eight-man football champ Polo

Carter Merdian (right) rolls out for a pass during football drills in Polo Thursday, July 7, 2022.

POLO – When two-time defending eight-man football state champion Polo begins its title defense at home Aug. 26 in the season opener vs. Amboy-LaMoille-Ohio, it will do so with almost an entirely new cast of characters.

Coming off a 13-0 state championship season – they also went 13-0 in 2019 – the bar has been set extremely high for the small-town powerhouse. After graduating a sizable senior class this spring, headlined by I8FA North First-Team All-State quarterback Tyler Merdian, the Marcos are eager to see who will step up in their absence.

So far, the adjustments for new starters have been smooth, coach Ted Alston says, but Week 1 will be the real measuring stick for his team.

“Good. In terms of the mental part of it, they’re real good. We’re not making many mistakes in practice,” he said. “It’ll be different because when they get out there against a varsity team, especially a team like Amboy that’s big and physical, that will be the challenge for them to see how they do against that.”

Senior quarterback/defensive end Cayden Webster thinks the experience of watching last year’s seniors in practice and game settings will prove invaluable.

“We’re a little bit younger. We lost a good group of seniors last year, but we’ve still got some returning guys. We’ve got a whole returning backfield minus me, the quarterback, coming in,” he said. “And we have one guy on the offensive line that we’ve got returning from last year. But overall, everybody sat behind those guys, so they didn’t play last year. But they’re experienced because they got to witness what those other guys did. So we’ve got a young, but experienced team at the same time.”

Running backs Avery Grenoble and Brock Soltow, who each rushed for over 1,400 yards last year and were I8FA North First-Team All-State selections, return to lead a formidable Polo offense. The Marcos also get an infusion of youth from a big freshman class.

Polo's Avery Grenoble runs away from River Ridge defenders.

Sophomore center Logan Nelson is a new starter this year, coming up from the fresh-soph team; senior guard/defensive tackle Waylon Harris joins the starting lineup after backing up some talented senior starters in 2021; and Noah Dewey is a newcomer at cornerback.

With two of its three all-state first-teamers from last year returning, Soltow and Webster are excited to see what the new-look offense can do in games.

“I think so far the offense has been clicking really well. We’ve been doing really good in team stuff, running timing drills and going live,” Webster said. “We’ve been working really well together, the receivers have been doing good, and the line is figuring stuff out. I’m feeling really confident about the offense this year, how they’re performing.”

“I think the strength is going to be the offense. Having Avery and I back is a huge part,” Soltow said. “After us running for all the yards that we had last year, 23 touchdowns both last year, it was a huge part. With our offensive line, they’re all in pretty good shape coming in, so they’re all looking good.”

With basically an entirely new offensive line this year, the position group was a big question mark entering the offseason. But after summer camp drills and the first few offseason practices, most of those concerns have dissipated.

Grenoble admittedly had some concerns about the front line earlier this summer, but after seeing how it’s performed in practices, those doubts have faded away.

“I honestly think our offensive line [will be a strength]. Like we said a while ago, we had to replace a lot, but going through and practicing lately, I’m very confident in our offense line,” he said. “They look a lot better than I expected them to be, to be honest. But I’m really excited for them. And our defense is looking great, too.”

With so many new faces on varsity this year, Alston will be tweaking his schemes to try to put his players in advantageous situations.

“You always try to fit some things to your personnel, so we’ve got some things in place that we’re hoping will fit our personnel well. It’s a little bit different, especially up front, than last year,” Alston said. “Last year was a very senior-heavy team up front with some good, decent size. And this is a little bit smaller team, it’s a little bit younger, so we’re trying to do some things that don’t expose them too much, and play into our strengths.”

Webster holds high expectations for this year, and also believes that the Marcos’ recent success will carry over into the near future.

“We’ve got some freshmen coming in this year that, you watch them in practice and you’re like, ‘Wow. That guy can really play,’ “ Webster said. “I didn’t know much about the people in that class before they came into high school, but seeing them play on the football field, the freshmen and sophomores are gonna be good, so I think the future for the team is gonna look really bright.”