Features | Friday Night Drive

Fulton counting on senior leadership, strong passing game to keep program rolling

FULTON – With high school sports practice officially open across Illinois as of Monday, teams are back to their normal operations and process of piecing together the puzzle of starting lineups and depth charts.

With football season just around the corner, excitement is in the air at practice fields all around the state. For the Fulton Steamers, it’s no different.

“Very excited. When you have as good of a postseason run as we had last year, it makes you pretty eager to get back the next season,” Fulton coach Patrick Lower said. “We’re just excited to get going teaching these kids the game of football.”

“We’re really excited. Everyone’s been working really hard. It’s been fun,” senior QB/DB Brayden Dykstra said. “Since we already had team camp, we’re ready to go. Everyone’s ready. We know what we’re doing.”

Coming off a 9-3 record and Class 1A quarterfinals appearance in 2021, the Steamers have high hopes entering the new season.

After squeaking by Galena, 14-13, in Week 1 of last season, they’re hoping for a better start to 2022.

“It was a rough game for us offensively,” Lower said. “I know Galena had a lot to do with it with their defense; we won the game, but we were disappointed in the way we played, and we want to get off to a much better start Aug. 26 at our place.”

Although Fulton has 19 seniors on the roster this year, many of them lack extensive playing experience. Getting the new senior starters up to speed quickly will be essential as the Steamers try to navigate a challenging NUIC schedule.

Weeks 3 through 5, in particular, look like a gauntlet, as Fulton travels an hour-and-a-half northeast to face reigning conference champion Durand-Pecatonica, then hosts Michigan powerhouse Muskegon Catholic Central, before hitting the road again to battle two-time defending Class 1A state champion Lena-Winslow. Forreston also awaits in Week 7, coming off an 8-3 season and second-place finish in the NUIC.

“We’ve got a few guys, we have some juniors that are going to step up. We have quite a few seniors that are going to get a lot of playing time, and they’re going to be able to do things they need to do to make us better,” Lower said. “We are a veteran group with a lot of seniors, but we have a lot of seniors that haven’t had a lot of playing time. I think our guys getting ready and getting used to the speed of varsity football [will be our biggest challenge this year].”

Although the Steamers are somewhat lacking in varsity game experience on both sides of the line, senior OL/DL Zane Pannell has faith that his teammates will step up and fill those roles admirably.

“We’re less experienced on the line, but we’ll definitely be good there because Logan [Rathburn] is new,” Pannell said. “We have some juniors that have to step up.”

The backfield will look a little different without 2021 IHSFCA All-State First Team RB Keegan VanKampen, who graduated this spring, but senior RB Ryan Eads is ready to take some of those snaps and fill the void along with a handful of newcomers. Seniors Lukas Schroeder and Ben Fosdick, and junior Jimmy Crimmins add to the backfield rotation this year.

Returning starters from last year’s playoff run include Eads, Pannell, senior OL/DL Braiden Damhoff, senior TE Ethan Price, junior WR/LB Baylen Damhoff, senior DB Conner Sheridan, and senior K Endi Qunaj.

After partaking in summer camp 7-on-7′s and two regular practices this summer, Dykstra and Pannell agreed the passing game will be a strength this year.

Dykstra identified one possible breakout candidate on offense.

“[WR/DB] Trevor Tiesman’s going to be a junior. I think he’ll step up and take a big role on defense and offense this year,” he said.

Pannell sees another potential difference-maker in the trenches.

“[Senior OL/DL] Logan Rathburn, he’s coming back from home school, and I think he’s gonna do good for our line,” he said.

Fulton will host Galena Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. for its season opener.