Going into the first day of fall practice, a young Roncalli team felt good about its chances to build another Class 4A contender around returning leading rusher Collin McManama, an All-State selection as a junior.
That first day didn’t end well.
McManama, who had bulked up in the offseason and appeared ready to bull over and then sprint away from opposing defenses, was out before he even took a hit.
An awkward slip in warm-ups led to a torn ACL and the end of his senior season before it even started.
“To lose him the first day of practice just broke my heart,” said coach Bruce Scifres, who enters his 25th season leading the Rebels. “He had worked so hard. I feel bad for his family, too.
“Obviously, it makes a noticeable impact on our team, too.”
Don’t expect opponents to show much sympathy for Roncalli, which is 217-77 under Scifres with six state championships.
Don’t expect the resilient Rebels to ask for any, either.
“We’re going to miss him,” said senior tight end Danny Annee, the lone returning starter on offense. “I know if I went down, he would get the team ready. He would do whatever he could to lead the team to victory, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
The cupboard is not bare, especially on the defensive side. Seven starters return, including a linebacking crew that Scifres says may be the best in recent memory.
Led by a trio of seniors — leading tackler Nat Otley, David Schott and Joe Swan — the Rebels will build on a defense that allowed just 31 percent of opponents’ third-down conversions last season. Juniors Jake Franklin and Nate Eble provide depth.
“We will be an attack defense,” Scifres said. “We want to be fast and aggressive to the ball, like a pack of wolves.”
The secondary is deep and experienced, with senior Ryan Hume and junior Justin Saylor at corners. Seniors Eric Townsend and Rogelio Avelar man the safety positions.
Up front, senior Bryce Rohrman (6-foot, 244 pounds) plugs the middle with a rotating supporting cast that is deep.
“We feel that our defense is very strong and practicing very well going into the season,” Scifres said.
“Just the reverse is true on offense,” he continued. “We graduated our whole offensive line and starting quarterback (Cam Smock), who set five school passing records, and slot back David Holtkamp.”
Taking snaps has been an open competition, with junior Casey Gore and sophomore Robbie Strader both making a case to start.
“In all my years of coaching football, this is the closest quarterback race we’ve had,” Scifres said. “Every day, it’s back and forth. Casey throws a real nice long ball. Both of them run well, but Robbie is maybe a little quicker. They are both ahead of where we thought they would be at this time.”
Gore, who had two touchdown passes last season as a reserve, will get the initial nod.
Whoever is doing the pitching, Greenwood resident Annee (6-7, 216) presents a big target.
“Danny has done an awesome job,” the coach said. “He uses his leverage and has good hands. He’s an excellent blocker and plays with passion.”
Senior Gavin Taylor is the wideout, and senior Luke Alfery is in the slot.
But it is at running back where the Rebels will have to grow up quickly.
Junior Nate Fries and sophomore Andrew Mappes will get the carries, with senior Nick Boehle opening up the holes from his fullback slot.
The Rebels ran the ball 75 percent of the time last season, and Scifres expects to follow that path again.
“That’s high school football in Indiana,” he said. “You’d better be able to run the football, especially when you get to the rain and wind and cold of November, or you’re not going to advance far in the tournament.”
Up front, senior Eli Smith moves from linebacker to center. Around him in an untested line are big tackles Brian Watts (6-1, 314) and Cameron Van Horn (6-3, 262). Juniors Garrett Schura and Louie Hibner step in at guard.
Soccer player Matt Cunningham is the kicker, and Gore will punt.
The Rebels open Friday at Class 6A Southport.