Marshall Cardinals - Capitol South
Coach: Matt Kleinheinz (14th season); 80-56 Overall (8 Conference Championships; 2015)
2016 Result: 3-7 (2-2), 3rd in the Capitol South (Lost in Level 1 to Clinton in the Division 5 playoffs, 42-14)
Three-Year Record: 20-14
2016 All-Conference Honors: 6 First-Team, 4 Second-Team, 1 Honorable Mention (11 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 24 First-Team, 15 Second-Team, 3 Honorable Mention (42 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (3): RB/DB Kelvin Opoku (First Team-RB, Second Team-DB, Second Team-ST), Jr.; OL Edwin Vazquez (Second Team), Sr.; P Brock Riege (Honorable Mention), Sr.
Other Players To Watch: OL/DE Justin Chadwick, Sr.; FB/LB Izak Plasky, Jr.; FB/DL Ben Lusk, Jr.; QB/LB Josh Wehking, Jr.
BIG Games: vs Lake Mills August 18 (non-conference), at Adams-Friendship August 25 (non-conference), vs Lodi September 8, vs New Glarus/Monticello September 22
A season full of learning moments for the Marshall Cardinals in 2016 should pay off big time in 2017.
Marshall Head Coach Matt Kleinheinz, now in his 14th year at the helm, says there's two sides to how you can look at going 3-7.
"The downside to last season was our disappointing record," said Coach Kleinheinz. "The upside was that we got to play a lot of underclassmen, which should pay dividends for us this season."
"We feel like we are going to be very good up front, and that's where it all begins. We also like the fact that we return the entire back end of our defense. We have some playmakers on offense who can score anytime they have the ball in their hands." - Head Coach Matt Kleinheinz
Marshall finished 3-7 last season, but still qualified for the playoffs to extend their playoff streak to 11 seasons. Nearly a dozen seniors graduate from the program, leaving some voids to be filled this season on the Cardinals.
"We will certainly have our work cut out for us in replacing [players like] Adam Wehking, Walt Easley, and Alantae Harbert," said Kleinheinz. "As much as we will miss their playmaking ability, we will miss their leadership more. They were great examples of what we want our student athletes to be. They were outstanding students in the classroom, very involved in the community, and tremendous role models for younger students."
A very large, both in terms of sheer numbers and the actual size of some of the returning linemen, group of incoming seniors look to help form the core of the 2017 Cardinals.
"All of our returning [linemen] started multiple games at some point last season," said Kleinheinz. The senior class includes second-team all-conference offensive lineman Edwin Vazquez and two-way standout Justin Chadwick, but also four other linemen in the class with size (three of them over 275 pounds) and experience.
Behind that wall of senior linemen will be several returning skill-position standouts in the incoming junior class, including Kelvin Opoku, who made the all-conference lists at three positions as a sophomore in 2016.
"Kelvin certainly has a tremendous upside, and he is just scratching the surface of what he can accomplish," said Coach Kleinheniz. "He has had an outstanding off-season in the weight room and had a very successful season as a sprinter in track as well."
Opoku was first-team all-conference as a running back, and second-team all-conference as a defensive back and a special teams ace. He also led the team in receiving, and scored seven touchdowns in 2016 to lead the team (five rushing, two receiving). While he flies a little under the radar, with so many great running backs and athletes in the area, Kleinheinz says Opoku grew by leaps and bounds in 2016.
"I think the game was moving fast for Kelvin at times last year," said Kleinheinz. "He got thrust into an important role for us early in the season, and as he settled in during the conference season, you could see the game slowed down for him, and he was able to react to things better. He was thinking too much early on, as you would expect from any sophomore playing varsity football for the first time. I like our team a lot better when he is on the field performing at his top level."
In addition to Opoku, the offensive backfield will also feature incoming juniors stepping into large roles in the option offense at quarterback and fullback. Quarterback Josh Wehking and fullbacks Izak Plasky and Ben Lusk will be taking on important responsibilities within Marshall's system. "We will have to replace Adam [Wehking] at Quarterback and Walt [Easley] at fullback, but I believe we have players ready to step into those roles," said Kleinheinz. "Those are pretty important pieces of the puzzle for what we do."
Defensively, the entire linebacker and secondary groups return intact. "We return eight starters on each side of the ball and several more who saw significant playing time at one point or another during the season," said Coach Kleinheinz. "That taste of what varsity football is all about should help those guys hit the ground running this season."
Experience is what Kleinheinz considers to be a team strength this season. "We got a lot of guys back who played a lot of minutes last year," Coach Kleinheinz said, noting that even in a season with a disappointing record, there were plenty of positives that will benefit the team coming back this year. "We feel like we are going to be very good up front, and that's where it all begins. We also like the fact that we return the entire back end of our defense. We have some playmakers on offense who can score anytime they have the ball in their hands."
On the schedule, Marshall will get no breaks. Six of the nine teams on their schedule appeared in the postseason. Their opener is against Lake Mills in a Capitol Conference crossover. The L-Cats are led by the dynamic quarterback-receiver duo of Ben Dunkleberger and Hayden Iverson, and played in Level 3 last season. After a road game at Trailways member Parkview, the Cardinals will visit Adams-Friendship, a team that went undefeated in the regular season in 2016. Marshall will then take on Capitol North contender Lodi, who return nine all-Capitol North performers from their 8-3 season in 2016, before finishing non-conference play with Mineral Point, the fourth playoff qualifier that Marshall will see before playing any games in the Capitol South.
In the conference, Marshall will host last year's Capitol South champion, New Glarus/Monticello, in Week 6, making it five playoff qualifiers in 2016 in six games to open the year for the Cardinals. Marshall will host Waterloo before hitting the road to play last year's second-place team in the conference in Cambridge before wrapping up the season against Belleville, who finished last year with a winning record and missed the postseason by one game. That one game was a win-and-in game between Belleville and Marshall in Week 9, won by Marshall 40-19.
All told, the winning percentage of Marshall's non-conference opponents was over 63% (33-19) in 2016, and overall the Cardinals' opponents went 51-39 last year (56.67%).
The Capitol South remains a five-team conference for 2017 for the second straight year, meaning teams only need to win two games in conference play to become playoff-eligible and three games to clinch a playoff spot. The drop to five teams occurred prior to the 2016 season, when Wisconsin Heights opted to play 8-man football rather than continue in the Capitol South.
In the Capitol South, New Glarus/Monticello is considered the favorite, but the remaining four teams in the conference, including Marshall, will not make it easy on the Glarner Knights. Almost every team brings back key performers from 2016.