Carroll football: Class 5A title in Eagles sights
The question posed to Bishop Carroll senior quarterback Zeke Palmer was simple and straightforward. And so was the answer.
State championship is the main thing, Palmer said in response to what Carrolls expectations are for the 2012 season.
Such a statement isnt mere folly. Its a team with talent, starting with Palmer (2,173 passing yards, 65.4 completion percentage) and Carrolls 37 seniors. Theres the backfield of Jalen Hernandez and Denzel Goolsby, both speedy and physical. Theres the veteran offensive line led by Bryce Barrientos and a dangerous receiving corps of Matt Denning and Matt Henning, who both had more than 500 receiving yards.
Throw in the fact that Hutchinson, which won three of the last four Class 5A titles and won 6A titles from 2004-07, is back in 6A, and the road to the 5A title looks good.
But coach Alan Schuckman doesnt want the team, or fans, to get too far ahead of themselves.
People are crazy, he said. There were so many people, when they saw Hutchinson moved to 6A, (say) we had a walk to the state championship game. Thats nuts. Its not easy.
There are no guarantees. Weve put ourselves in position to compete for a state championship, but there are no guarantees.
Schuckman, in his 17th season, led Carroll to the 5A title game in 2007 and 2010. In 2007, several key players didnt play due to breaking team rules. In 2010, Carroll beat Hutchinson in the semifinals, ending the Salthawks string of six state titles, but Blue Valleys size dominated Carroll.
Weve been to the top, and we need to get to the top and win it, Palmer said. We know what it takes. I think weve got it this year.
In everything you do, the state championship is in the back of your mind. (You know) that every part of your life affects your teammates and affects the team and it needs to affect the team in a positive way.
Carrolls program has definitely become one of the states best. The Eagles, who won the 5A title in 1978, hade eight winning seasons from 1977-94, but under Schuckman, Carroll has qualified for the playoffs the past 12 years and had one losing season, his first in 1995.
Yet Schuckman knew his team needed to reach another level when Hutchinson dropped into 5A in 2008. Carroll did and beat Hutchinson in 2010 and 2011.
I think that elevated our program, and I hope we can build on that this year and take it to another level, he said.
But with Hutch no longer an obstacle, what will Carroll focus on to continue improving the program?
The kids want a state championship, Schuckman said.
For that to happen, Carroll must cut down on turnovers in the postseason, which has been an issue for the Eagles. Theyve had multiple turnovers in each postseason loss the past few seasons.
Theyll also rely heavily on Palmer, who Schuckman compares favorably to Carroll graduate Blake Bell, a redshirt sophomore at Oklahoma.
Zeke is not far off from what Blake did, as far as making all the throws, Schuckman said. Theyre both physical runners and they have great leadership skills.
Ive been working a lot on technique and footwork, Palmer said. Im really excited, though, with all our receivers and running backs.
In addition to Denning and Henning, theres Derek Bongartz and Scott Linnebur, who averaged 10 yards per catch. Senior Bryce Harvey, who had 548 receiving yards, suffered an anterior-cruciate ligament injury, but hopes to return in the postseason.
Matt Denning is as explosive as anyone weve ever had, Schuckman said. But with our receivers, teams will have a hard time singling any of them out. That helps the running game.
The running game with Hernandez and Goolsby, and junior Tory Smith could be what sets apart Carroll, which has eight offensive starters back. How can teams focus on Palmers passing game, when the Eagles can run so effectively?
It comes down to those running backs have to be physical, Schuckman said. Were physical up front, but we need our running backs to be more physical than they were last year. We talk about being a physical runner, but its blocking, too. We werent very good blockers from the running back position.
Hernandez can be a bruising running back, while Goolsby, only the second freshman to play varsity for Schuckman (a kicker was the other), can make the quick cuts and outrun the defense. He broke a 300-yard shuttle team record heading into his freshman season.
Theres also an experienced line, with Barrientos, Matt Johnson and Joseph Frangenberg.
As for defense, Carroll is experienced on the defensive line with Zach Befort and Patrick Dugan. But after them, Carroll must count on young players.
The key for us is finding 11 guys who will play great defense, Schuckman said. The offense coming back, its a nice thing to have. We have a lot of guys who have made big plays in big games. Then again, I dont think thats the difference maker as far as winning football games. We have to be able to stop other teams.
Carroll opens against Heights, which has scored 66 points in two straight wins over Carroll. And the western half of Class 5A remains strong with Emporia, Salina South and Hays. So the Eagles are confident but cautious.
Were going to respect every opponent, Palmer said. Well trust our abilities, but give them the respect they deserve. And were going to do what we think it takes to win.
Hard work and commitment, thats how well beat other teams. When we go out on Friday nights, well know that weve done everything we can to prepare and weve done it the right way and weve given it our all.