STERLING – When Kael Ryan went down with a knee injury in the 2021 spring football season, it was a huge blow to the Sterling Golden Warriors. As a sophomore in 2020, the quarterback rushed for 394 yards and nine touchdowns, and passed for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
That kind of production was undoubtedly missed last season, although Sterling (7-3, 6-1) still finished second in the Western Big 6 behind Moline (9-2, 7-0).
With the return of Ryan and the addition of senior JP Schilling this year, the Warriors again have a one-two punch at quarterback. Both players made their mark in the first two games of the season, but further demonstrations of the duo’s dynamism will have to wait until Ryan is ready to return to the field again.
“[Kael]’s been really good for us, and we gotta get him healthy and just be able to get his body where he can get out there and play four quarters,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “But he’s a great leader and a great kid, and I want him out there as much as anybody.”
In the first two games of the 2022 season, Ryan and Schilling have scored four rushing touchdowns each. After 473 days away from the football field, Ryan announced his return in a big way in the season-opening 40-7 win over Lakes, rushing five times for 138 yards and two touchdowns. The two scores came on runs of 55 and 68 yards. Last week, in the 35-27 loss to St. Francis, he added 43 rushing yards and two more rushing touchdowns.
Schilling, a first-team Western Big 6 selection in basketball this past season, is playing football for the first time since eighth grade. Knowing he only had one fall sports season left in his high school career and getting some encouragement from friends, he decided to get back on the gridiron for one last hurrah.
“It was senior year and a couple of my friends wanted me to go out, and I love football, obviously, so I just decided, ‘Why not?’” Schilling said. “And it’s been fun. It’s been a great experience.”
Coming into a historically successful football program, Schilling knew he was going to be challenged daily.
“Sterling football has always had high expectations, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and I was going to get pushed every day,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve gotten, is pushed every day to get better.”
In Week 1 vs. Lakes, Schilling rushed for 55 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries. Last week against St. Francis, he racked up 53 rushing yards and two touchdowns, breaking away for 44 yards on one of the scores.
From the get-go, Schilling has made his impact felt on the field, and emerged as a leader on the team.
“He provides everything. The one thing I think – and you could tell right away – he was voted a captain by his peers after not playing football. I think his peers look up to him,” Schlemmer said of Schilling. “As a coach, I thought he was going to be a really good player. I love the way that he practices. I think that’s kind of where it starts for him. He practices as hard as anybody that we’ve got. He’s out there competing. I think the leadership factor’s been really big for him, and I’m really proud of him for that.
“We’re just super happy to have him out playing football, and obviously, he’s having a lot of success to this point, but he’s put the work in this summer. I think he’s been a really, really nice addition to the team.”
Having depth at quarterback and a one-two punch when Ryan is healthy has been a huge asset for the Warriors this year. Both quarterbacks have also played big roles on the defensive side of the ball, and will continue to as the season goes along.
“It’s been nice. We’ve clearly got two guys back there that are really dynamic athletes and both good leaders. Both can kind of run the show up front, but they’re still really valuable to us on the defensive side of the ball, too,” Schlemmer said. “So you get a strong safety and a Will linebacker, they’re kind of leading the defense just as they are with the offense. So we’re proud of them, we’re happy we’ve got them, and we’re going to see how far we can go with this thing.”
Schilling says he enjoys sharing the spotlight and quarterback snaps with Ryan, as he takes in the high school football experience week by week.
“I like it. I think it’s hard to manage from other team’s point of perspective, and me and Kael are like best friends,” Schilling said. “We’re OK with [splitting quarterback snaps]. Some people wouldn’t really be, but we like it, and it’s been great, I think.”