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Playing for Rebels taught team’s leader life lessons

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First year Marian College football coach Mark Henninger conducts practice Tuesday. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
First year Marian College football coach Mark Henninger conducts practice Tuesday. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

There are six former Roncalli High School players who are part of the Marian University football program.

Seven if you count head coach Mark Henninger.

In January, Henninger was handed the keys to a most souped-up vehicle, a Knights program that a month earlier captured an NAIA national championship in what was only its sixth season of existence.

Shortly after winning the title Knights coach Ted Karras departed to Walsh University, an NCAA Division II program in Canton, Ohio, a move that brought Henninger home.


Name: Mark Henninger

Job: Marian University football coach

Age: 39

Family: Wife, Jeni; son, Jack, 11; daughters, Mary, 7, and Abby, 3

Born: Fullerton, Calif.

High school: Roncalli High School (1992)

College: Wittenberg University (1996)

Major: Management

Coaching background: North Carolina Wesleyan College, head coach (2008-12); North Carolina Wesleyan, assistant coach (2004-07); Wittenberg University, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator (2000-03); Wartburg College, graduate assistant (1999).

The 1992 Roncalli graduate spent five seasons (2008-2012) as head coach at North Carolina Wesleyan College. A Division III program, North Carolina Wesleyan compiled a 26-25 record under Henninger’s guidance, including a 22-13 ledger against USA South Conference competition.

As much as Henninger relished leading the Bishops, the opportunity to coach at Marian was simply too good not to pursue.

“As a competitor you want to be at a place where there are high expectations, and there are high expectations at Marian,” said Henninger, who is off to a 1-2 start after inheriting a roster in which 70 of his 86 players are underclassmen.

There are four Knights players whose football roots are in Johnson County: senior offensive lineman Zach VanDeman (Whiteland), junior offensive lineman Sean Egenolf (Center Grove), sophomore quarterback Trey Reese (Indian Creek) and freshman defensive back Austin Bowman (Franklin).

Others include Greenwood natives Luke Burkhart (Roncalli), a junior lineman, and freshman receiver Dominic Henn (Roncalli).

Henninger played under former Roncalli coach Bill Sylvester as a freshman and sophomore. His final two seasons as a Rebels quarterback/safety came at the beginning of the Bruce Scifres era, which is now in its 24th year.

“The impact coach Scifres had on me were things like you can be a coach and still be a good husband and father. I now have three young children, so those are lessons I learned from him,” Henninger said. “Roncalli is great place with great people and tradition.

“There’s a strong emphasis on faith, and they hold people accountable. It’s neat being in a place that has so much in common with me.”

Ironically, Luke Scifres, the oldest of coach Scifres’ four children, is a junior long-snapper for Marian this season.

“Mark is a very high-character guy. He comes from a great family and as a player was just tough and a very bright guy,” Bruce Scifres said. “I was very excited when I heard he was going to be the next coach at Marian University.”

Marian’s first game of this season ended with the Knights shutting out Kentucky Christian University 23-0. The past two weekends have been more humbling — a 31-24 overtime loss at No. 5 Saint Xavier (Ill.) and a 34-13 setback at home to Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

The schedule fails to give Marian a break, with ninth-ranked Grand View University paying a visit Saturday. After that, four of the Knights’ seven opponents are part of this week’s NAIA Top 25: No. 22 Robert Morris (Ill.), No. 20 William Penn (Iowa), 17th-ranked St. Francis (Ill.) and No. 2 St. Francis.

Marian’s status as the No. 16 team in NAIA could well be based on recent reputation. Henninger knows and appreciates this. At the same time he understands ample opportunities exist to prove his Knights are in fact worthy.

“For us it’s can we get better every day? We play a lot of freshmen and redshirt freshmen. We’re young and inexperienced right now, and in a way we’re a team that’s still trying to find its identity,” Henninger said. “It’s a process, but we want to win and compete at the highest level.

“Our guys understand full well what the expectations are.”

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