‘The boys from the South’: Steele, Indians look for fourth consecutive South title
It was the very first thing that Indian River High School head football coach Ray Steele heard on the very first day of practice.
No one on his squad wanted to be the team that snapped the streak. The streak that Steele started when he took the helm in 2011, coaching the Indians to a state championship and beginning a Henlopen South championship title run that this year’s team plans on keeping alive.
That run was in jeopardy last season after holes were left by stars including Marquel Knight, Aaron Moore and Jalen Griffin. But after a tough pre-season and stumble in the home-opener against Decatur, new leaders emerged as the team continued to find their identity and eventually not only took the South but challenged No. 1 St. Georges Tech in the first round of the DIAA playoffs.
Now Steele will have to figure out how to fill the roster spots left by last year’s leaders.
“This year, we’ve got a lot of different personalities, a lot different skill sets,” he said. “I think it probably reminds me more of two years ago, when Marquel took us to the semi-finals — it could be that kind of team.”
While the personalities and skill sets may be different, this season will begin with a similar situation at quarterback, after graduating two seniors from last year’s squad — one of whom was Blue-Gold All-Star Spencer Murray.
So far, junior quarterback Jake Hudson looks to be the frontrunner, showing impressive knowledge of the offense after seeing the field in several varsity games last season. However, Steele said that fellow juniors Ryan Engh and Deshawn Aiken have also shown promise at the helm and could just as easily win the starting spot.
“We’ve got a real battle at quarterback,” Steele said after noting that all three prospects saw time at the position on JV last year. “There’s a big difference in what we do [compared to] JV, because we’re no-huddle, up-tempo — we put a lot of pressure on our quarterback to call plays, make adjustments.”
All three players have different strengths, with Hudson’s being his ability to run the offense, Engh with his size and athleticism, and Aiken’s quickness and athleticism — but they all have their weaknesses, as well.
“They all have some weaknesses that they’re trying to fix,” Steele said. “If somebody doesn’t separate, we’ll use them all.”
One position not in question this year will be running back, where junior KiAnté Sturgis will return to the backfield after rushing for more than 1,200 yards and earning All-Conference honors in his sophomore campaign.
“He’s a little bit bigger; he’s just as fast,” Steele said of the star tailback’s return. “You gotta do things to get him involved, and we’re gonna do that — they’re gonna have to stop him.”
Similar production will be expected out of Sturgis this season; however, he’ll have to do so with a revamped offensive line, as the team looks to fill the spots left by three starting graduated seniors — including All-State center Joost Elling.
“We’ve got a big gap we’ve got to fill at center. You don’t just replace Joost Elling,” Steele explained. “Right now, Sito [Osegueda]’s doing a nice job, and if he keeps working hard, I think we’ll be OK there.”
A junior, Osegueda will play alongside two returning lineman in senior Brandon Almony and junior Joey Anderson, with seniors Spencer Sturla and Zack Umpstead replacing departed All-Conference linemen Devin Burke and Tristan Smyth.
“We have some options,” Steele said after discussing the possibility of shuffling Sturla and Umpstead around while they see what works.
One of the more breakout performances of the pre-season so far has been at tight end, from junior DeAndre Cooper, who has looked more than promising in filling the role occupied by two more All-Conference players from last season — Jake Troublefield and London Tucker.
“DeAndre Cooper has stepped up big time,” Steele noted. “Big kid — he’s athletic, great attitude,” he went on to describe of Cooper, who should also make an impact on the defensive line.
At wide receiver and in the secondary, the Indians will rely on speedy seniors Shaquille Hall and Kei Juan Major — who will also be expected to pick up some of the slack left by All-State every-down playmaker Tim Roberts, both on the field and as leaders.
“We’re kind of hoping that this team creates their own identity,” Steele said. “I like what Shaquille Hall’s doing right now. Sturla, Almony — those kids have stepped up and they’re trying to be leaders for us.”
“We didn’t have the raw athletic ability, so we had to really change it up,” said Roberts of how last year’s team made adjustments. “I think [this year’s team is] going to have to rely a lot on KiAnté, Kei Juan, Shaq and Jake. They’re really gonna have to step up big time. They’re gonna need to start leading to be successful.”
After enjoying six home games last season, the Indians will play the majority of their regular-season games on the road this year — with only four Friday night matchups at Indian River Football Stadium on the schedule. According to Steele, however, it shouldn’t be a problem for his team.
“That’s one of those mental things where they gotta learn to play on the road,” he explained. “The last three years, when we get on the bus our kids are very focused, I never have to say anything to them. If this bunch does the same thing, I think we’ll be just fine.
“If they work hard, there’s not a limit to how far they can go, I don’t think, but they gotta work hard — they gotta understand that work’s gonna get them there, not just showing up.”
The Indians will kick off the 2014 season on the road next Friday, Sept. 5, at Stephen Decatur High School at 7 p.m. Follow @CPointSports on Twitter for live game updates and check out @CoastalPoint on Instagram for photos after the game.