With experience on both sides of the ball, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify the primary strength of the Whiteland Community High School football team.
For example, is it the offense, where six starters return?
Is it the defense, where six additional starters — including six seniors — are back?
Is it special teams, where most of last year’s standouts — including both kickers — return?
Or is it the foundation of 32 letter winners, each of whom had a hand in last year’s Mid-State Conference and sectional championships?
Not surprisingly, coach Darrin Fisher points to the latter.
“We’ve got some new guys in some key spots, but the good news is, we’ve got some experience returning,” said Fisher, who’s in his 10th season with the Warriors. “They’ve been through the grind, and they know what the (postseason) chase is about.
“We have an opportunity to be that team in October.”
Ranked No. 5 in the Class 5A preseason poll, the Warriors are poised for another spirited state tournament run.
Offensively, they return six starters, including All-State wide receiver Isaiah Calaway and running backs Brandon Patterson, Shaw Cloud, Anthony Schantz and Brandon Benson.
A senior, Calaway had team-high totals last season of 45 catches, 967 yards and nine touchdowns. He also averaged 21.5 yards per reception and is a dangerous kick returner who sometimes lines up in the backfield, occasionally plays defense and was the county’s leading punter last season.
“He’s been a playmaker for us, regardless of the opponent, regardless of what we ask him to do,” Fisher said. “He has risen to the occasion and made plays, when necessary, in lots of different spots and lots of different ways.
“I wouldn’t call him just a receiver. I’d call him a really good football player, and we’re going to ask him to do it again.”
In the backfield, Patterson, a junior, rushed last season for 700 yards and eight touchdowns on 84 carries. Cloud, Schantz and Benson combined for 732 yards and six touchdowns. All four players are expected to play prominent roles in a versatile backfield.
Tyler Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 301-pound junior, is a returning starter at offensive tackle. And Bryce Staker, a 6-3, 230-pound senior, reclaims his starting job at tight end.
“We’ve got a lot of guys playing that have scored touchdowns in varsity games,” Fisher said. “Everybody that’s going to touch the ball for us on Friday has done it already in a varsity game, in a big game, in a big spot, so that’s good for us.
“At the offensive skilled positions, we’ve got a lot of guys that have made big plays.”
Offensively, the stiffest challenge is filling graduation voids at quarterback and on the offensive line.
Sophomore Jace Carpenter, a 5-9, 155-pound sophomore, is the Warriors’ new quarterback. Although he has no varsity experience, Fisher is abundantly confident in Carpenter’s ability to direct the run-oriented attack.
“He goes about his business kind like a battleship captain. You’ve got to get in there and scrap and fight, and that’s what he does,” Fisher said. “He’s mentally tough. He efficiently runs the offense the way it’s supposed to run.
“That’s what I like about him the most right now.”
On the other side of the ball, the Warriors are equally stocked with experience.
Senior linebacker Nick Ratti, an All-State selection last season, and senior defensive lineman Skylar Hall, an All-Mid-State Conference pick, are among the leaders of the veteran unit. The other returning starters are senior linebacker Kyle Harmening and senior defensive backs Gabe Clippert, Kevin Starnes and Brodie Rice.
Although the Warriors have graduation holes to fill at linebacker and on the defensive line, most of the players stepping into those roles earned a measure of varsity experience last season.
In addition, Whiteland returns last year’s kicking specialists in sophomore Jacob Ballain and junior Carter Beers. Ballain handled field goals and PATs. Beers performed kickoffs.
“I would say defensively we’ve got experience at every level,” Fisher said. “We’ve got key players at each level of the defense. I would say that’s a strength for us, and then our kicking game. Our punter and kickers are both back.
“We feel good about that, too.”
Whiteland opens the season Friday night at Class 6A Lafayette Jeff.