RIPLEY – The old adage holds that there is strength in numbers. Nowhere is that more important than on the football field with the Ripley Vikings now in year two under head coach Eddie Smolder.
With 49 upperclassmen out for fall practice and 20 to 25 freshmen players waiting in the wings, increased numbers and a renewed vigor during summer workouts has translated into a hungrier, more determined group of players.
Those qualities will hopefully pay dividends as the season moves into the later stages in the fall, but for now, Smolder and his group are focused on improvement.
“I think the most impressive thing so far is our improvement in our athletic ability just from off-season training,” Smolder said, “Our kids have put in countless hours of hard work into the weight room and on the field for conditioning. They’ve been relentless in their work ethic and it’s changed our whole culture and practice tempo. Our off-season attendance was 68% in the first year and this year it was 91%, so we’ve made huge gains.”
Huge gains, both in numbers and ability, will be vital for a Viking team that returns nearly every starter from last season’s squad that went 3-7.
Transitioning to a new system coupled with injuries played a big part in the Vikings’ growing pains last season, but in the first two days of practice, Smolder has already seen a completely different attitude from his team.
“We’ve got guys that want to freakin’ win this year,” Smolder said, “Last year, year one and we only had four seniors, it is what it is. This year, we have a bigger group that wants to freakin’ win. I see that hunger in their eyes even when we’re running gassers after practice. They want to be successful.”
So far, his players’ intensity and willingness to put forth maximum effort has impressed Smolder and his staff. It also helps that this same group is returning with what amounts to a full season’s worth of experience to fall back on. The Vikings return their entire defensive front (senior J.T. Spurlock, sophomore Caydan Keeler and junior B.J. Haynes) from a year ago, as well as three of their four starting linebackers (seniors Chase Morgan, Chance Morgan and Anthony Jarvis) and defensive backs (senior Hunter Stephens, junior Ty Eshenaur and junior Colton Kay). Elsewhere, senior Nathan Hall, junior Rocky Ford and senior Devin Hunt also provide experience and depth in key areas for the Viking defense.
On the offensive side, the Vikings have plugged holes from departed seniors Chance Ranson (quarterback), Brandon Shamblin (receiver), Nolan Holley (center) and J.J. Mahan (tackle). Junior quarterback Brayden Campbell returned late last season after he fractured his fibula in the MSAC Grid-o-Rama in the preseason and assumes the mantle for the upcoming season. The Morgan twins return at the running back spots, while Spurlock and Eshenaur return, as well. The offensive line seems to be the biggest beneficiary of the Vikings’ added depth, with junior Bailey Carr, Haynes Hall, senior Ethan Wendell and a host of others back. For all of their depth, the biggest benefit comes from being familiar with Smolder’s scheme.
“[We’ve really improved] our timing and mental responsibilities on what they’re supposed to do,” Smolder said, “Any time you get bigger and quicker, you’re going to do things better. Our movement, from our offensive line to our quarterback on down, is better. The mental aspect is easier because they knew what to do last year, now they’re working on improving that. Running power last year was a play, but this year it’s a system for them. We still have a long way to go, but by the time we get to (Parkersburg) South, we’re going to be ready.”
The Vikings will continue their modified two-a-day style practices this week, with full contact beginning next week. Ripley opens the season on the road at Parkersburg South on August 26.