2018 Gridiron: Van-Far Indians
Colors: Gold, black and white
Total Returning Lettermen: 14
2017 Overall Record: 4-6
Head Coach: Kevin Baldwin
Years at School: 2
Record at School: 6-14
Overall Record: 105-49
HOMBS SWEET HOMBS: INDIANS BANK ON VERSATILE CREW TO CLIMB THE EMO FOOD CHAIN
HEART OF A CHAMPION: What a remarkable stretch the last eighteen months have proven to be for Van-Far Athletics, which added three brand spanking new State Championship souvenirs to the Trophy Case that now overflows in the High School lobby. Head Football Coach Kevin Baldwin played architect of two of those Title Quests, albeit in his alternative guise as the Indians Track and Field Boss. (Pat Connaway and his Cinderella Boys Basketball crew can claim responsibility for the School’s Other “Shining Moment.”) Clearly, they aren’t lacking for athletes these days in Vandalia/Farber metroplex. And as winning has a funny way of begetting winning, Coach Baldwin will attempt to seize on some of that gathered momentum this Fall to coax the next evolution out of Indian Football. He’ll get to rely on a couple of key pieces from those Winter and Spring Titlist squads to get that done; seeking to bolster a crew that won three straight (four of its first six) to open the season but seemed to unravel badly (and in particular on defense) during the meat of the Conference and District slates. Baldwin will draw fourteen returning Letterman from that group to build into 2018.
THE MOTHER OF RE-INVENTION: Baldwin, who picked up his 100th career victory last Fall in the season opener, is no stranger to employing creatively run Offenses. See also the Indians 2017 “Joker Offense” which essentially put two Quarterbacks in the backfield at the same time, making defenses guess on a snap-to-snap basis whether either Parker Wallace and Eric Hombs would receive the snap. A “Two-Faced” approach as Baldwin would explain it (I’ll assume branding it “The Harvey Dent Formation” didn’t come as trippingly off the tongue during audibles; or maybe the Van-Far folks just aren’t big on their Super Villain mythology. Either way, we will cut them some slack here on the accuracy of the nomenclature.) With Wallace having graduated, I am not entirely sure how the changes the schematics of how Van-Far lines up. Perhaps Hombs assumes the full-time mantle here as Quarterback. Or maybe Coach Baldwin has another hybrid waiting in the wings to employ in conjuncture with Eric, now a six-foot, 175 pound Senior. However that shakes down, it’s still entirely right to assume that Hombs will remain a valued catalyst running the football. He’s a returning First Team EMO pick (ironically as a Running Back, which gives you some read on his dimensionality here) with not only the requisite quickness you expect, but a wonderful ability to diagnose defensive tendencies in real time. He finds the creases in a defense, burrows into them quickly, and darts his way throught the nooks and crannies to daylight on the other side. You wouldn’t think it to look at him in street clothes, but when I saw Eric in person against Central Home School, I found it remarkable not only how slippery he is, but also how hard he is to bring down one-on-one. He’s got choppy feet and surprising pop with his leg drive, which likely explains why he was so good in the red zone. Expect Eric Hombs to have a monster year statistically.
LEGENDS OF THE SUMMER: With the graduation loss of kids like Josh Hodde, Jacob Garner and Parker Wallace, you might expect Van-Far to surrender a bit of its “wow” factor in the skill position ranks. On overall assessment, however, there still appears to be plenty of strength here with which to arm the offense. Morgan Slatten (5’10” 165lbs) saw plenty of action at Fullback as a Sophomore and was a key contributor this Spring to the Indians Fourth Place 4x800 Meter Relay Squad. Incoming Sophomore Tony Garland (5’8” 150lbs) looms as a candidate for carries. There are high expectations for Julian Holtkamp (6’ 170 lbs) at Wide Receiver. Moreover, Kevin Baldwin returns a pair of excellent and versatile Tight Ends from 2017 who might end being the keys to the entire scenario. Treyson Culwell (6’2” 200lbs) was voted the teams most improved overall player as a Junior. He is also coming off the confidence booster of hitting a critical three pointer off the bench in the Indian Basketball team’s state championship win over Hayti. The prospect here though who most intrigues me is Verlyn Johson, a 6’2” 175 Senior who is a flat out burner. Verlyn finished fourth in the state individually in the 200 Meter Dash last Spring and ran a leg on the Indians State Title Winning 4x200 relay squad. He’s got ample bounce and a frame that could easily carry more weight when next we see him. And as we saw on the basketball court, Verlyn has a kind of selfless “whatever it takes for the team mentality” and the scrappiness to fight in the paint. He’s barely scratched the surface of his potential as a Football Player to this point and I suspect Kevin Baldwin will find ample opportunity to coax greater productivity from a young man who can flat leave everyone else on the field in his wake at top gear. Again, for all the flashy pieces the Indians bid good bye to last June, high end Skill Position potential remains very much in evidence on this roster.
HEATON UP: Line play here looms as the chief Offensive concern. The Indians return only two starters and both of them were actually Freshmen last Fall. All things considered, Clayton Heaton (6’ 205lbs) and Dayton Sanders (5’10” 340lbs) acquitted themselves competently in their varsity debuts. But the loss of three other starters, including First Team All EMO pick Kyle Ebers, leaves these two promising Sophomores with plenty of load to shoulder moving forward. Senior Trent Maiden (5’10” 250lbs) will be looked to as a component part here. Again, the presence of a couple of a talented two-way Tight Ends in Culwell and Johnson are needed run blocking boosters as well. Bottom line though here remains for Van-Far this Fall: as Player Development goes in the trenches, so to do the Indians overall Football Fortunes.
GOING TO THE ‘WELL ONE MORE TIME: If the Indians are to make a move on the Eastern Missouri Conference’s penthouse dwellers, they are going to do a lot better than 30 points against per game. Granted, I will concede that as a general principal, the EMO hasn’t exactly proven a bastion of stinginess over the last five years. But high octane video game styled offenses only carry you so far when you sharing Conference real estate with Thunderbird and Bulldog programs that preach and teach really strong defensive fundamentals. So “Keeping up with the Callaways” is a definite thing here. The Indians and have to try and do that with just four holdover starters. Van-Far did take a few major graduation losses in the Secondary and on The Defensive Line, but the returns of Verlyn Johnson and Treyson Cullwell (as well as the looming potential of Julian Holtkamp) at Defensive End suggests this squad can be very good at the edge. Johnson is a returning Second Team All-EMO selection whose explosive first step makes him nearly impossible to keep out of the Offensive Backfield for High School Tackles. He is not only a terrific blitz option, but poses enough positional versatility that Kevin Baldwin could line him up just about anywhere in the Front Seven of his 5-2 scheme to exploit opponents schematic blocking soft spots. If both he and Culwell remain at Defensive Edge, they are going to turn a lot of traffic right back into the heart of the defense. Morgan Slatten figures to be most in line to profit from that attention, a returning Linebacker who lacks ideal size but is possessed of great mobility and seemingly ceaseless endurance. Finding him the right interior Running Mate at Linebacker feels like perhaps the most important mission of Summer Camp. There’s a lot of work here to be performed on the Interior Defensive Line and in the Secondary, though the prospect of getting to unleash Eric Hombs again at the back end of the defense should at least allay a few concerns about the Indians last line of defense. He essentially plays the spot like an extra Linebacker and that should aid in tightening the screws on the Van-Far run defense from back-to-front. Tony Garland is poised here to play a lot in the Defensive Backfield as well in trying to pick up the slack in Josh Hodde and Coltin Jensen’s absence moving forward.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: The schedule makers have afforded Van-Far the luxury of a favorable start. With so much youth in play here, the Indians absolutely have to take advantage of it. This team has a chance to be at least 3-1 (perhaps even 4-0 if the Indians can make Home Field Advantage stand up against Wright City in Week Three) headed into the heart of the EMO schedule. From a District positioning standpoint, as well as the obvious Conference implications, this team is going to need some wind in its sails going into the North Callaway road trip on September 21stand the gauntlet of brutal games that follow. If that sounds a little familiar, that’s because the conditions do in fact exist here for Van-Far to fall into the same pattern It did last Fall; the whole scorch then sputter thing. This crew has to be a little smarter for the experience; know in advance that the sledding is going to ratchet up exponentially in mid-September regardless of how good they look early. The Indians need to be prepared for this contingency and realize that while they may post some impressive looking wins in the first half of the season, that attention-to-detail and relentless improvement have to remain the mindset. Mistakes that won’t hurt Van-Far in Week Two could be season killing in Week Six. This group needs to affect and keep that mindset from snap one. And if so, I think they have a chance to be much improved. Granted, there’s not much depth here and Van-Far is going to need luck in the injury department. That said, the Indians ability to run foes all over the field; to pop big plays and inflict damage in space is intriguing. They loom as a hard beat for even the most talented teams on the schedule because there’s still an abundance of quickness and burst here. Can the Indians find the toughness and collective overall physically to match? That’s the boiling point here for the entire season. If the Lines gel and Van-Far starts making tackles, these guys could easily get to six wins and a more advantageous District draw. If not, this group is likely dwelling back in 3 to 4 win real estate again. There are a lot of kids here who have learned an awful lot about Championship Character and winning the big one when no one else thinks you can. I would be loathe to bet against that contagious ethic in Vandalia/Farber these days; in any sport.