The Granite City football team took a big step forward in 2011, but coach Carl Luehmann hopes it leads to a longer journey this year.
The Warriors were 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the Southwestern Conference, losing 33-7 to Southwestern rival East St. Louis in the first round of the Class 7A playoffs.
“We did a real good job in the weight room over the winter and overall as a team, I think we’re stronger than we’ve ever been,” said Luehmann, in his third year as head coach. “We’ve got some good skill position guys back, but it’s a work in progress and we’ve got a long way to go.
“We had a couple kids decide not to come out so they can concentrate on other sports, but the kids are excited and they know what it takes to get to the playoffs. Now we need to see if they know what it takes to get deep into the playoffs.”
Senior Jake Daily returns at quarterback after completing 57 of 146 passes for 836 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. Senior Perry Grimes (20 catches, 405 yards, four TDs) will occasionally take snaps as well. Senior running back Kaprix Sloan was among the area leaders with 235 carries for 1,257 yards and 18 TDs.
“We’re going to run the ball quite a bit, but I think we can also change things up and throw more this year,” Luehmann said. “We’ve got four guys back on the offensive line and they were young last year, so they’ll be better this year.
“Sloan is a workhorse for us. If you get 20 carries a game in our conference, that says something right there. He gets banged up every Friday night and comes right back.
“A year of experience has really helped Jake Daily. If he keeps improving his technique, I think he’ll have a really good year.”
Senior Devin Narvaez (285 total yards, four TDs) is a two-way starter at fullback and middle linebacker. Senior Brian Nemsky is back at center while junior Justin James also returns on the offensive line. Senior Jeremy Collins steps into the lineup at wide receiver.
“(Junior) Anthony Ragnetti has gotten bigger and stronger,” Luehmann said. “He played guard for us last year, but he’s been a big surprise. He’s probably got the best attitude on the team.”
Returning players on defense include junior safety Quinton Jackson.
“(Junior) Marquis Myers and (senior) Jay Myers will be integral parts for us offensively and defensively as well as special teams,” Luehmann said. “We’ve got a little bit of depth, Marquis Myers can run the ball, so we’ve got some subs to put in at certain positions.”
Austin Cuthrell will start at middle linebacker with fellow senior George Wallace at cornerback.
Nemsky is back for his third year as the kicker. Senior Troy Garcia, a basketball player who didn’t play football last season, will handle the punting duties.
“We lost (punter) Chad Spanberger because he’s concentrating on baseball,” Luehmann said. “Garcia can also help us out at wide receiver when we need to give somebody a break.”
The seniors are anxious to show what the team can do this year.
“Now that we’ve had a taste of the playoffs, I think we’ll be able to play faster and harder,” Grimes said. “We also know what it takes to get farther because we know how we messed up last year.
“We’ve got too many weapons out here not to get the ball in the end zone. Our coaches are keeping us conditioned, so we’ll be able to stay in games.”
Narvaez was another player who started as a junior in 2011.
“A lot of us have been playing together for four years, or at least three, so we’ve built some really good chemistry,” Narvaez said. “We know teams are going to be focused on Kaprix (Sloan), so we have to be able to throw the ball more. Jake (Daily) has gotten better - his arm is a cannon.”
Daily, who is also a standout baseball player, figures to be more consistent as a senior.
“Last year the whole summer I was a tight end, so I didn’t work very much at quarterback,” Daily said. “I put a lot more work in this summer and I feel a lot more comfortable in the pocket. I know who my best receivers are and who I want to throw to.”
Granite City opens the season at 7 p.m. Friday at Marion. The Warriors play Aug. 31 at Jerseyville and play host to Belleville East in the conference opener on Sept. 7.
“These kids want to make the playoffs, but they also want to perform better in the conference,” Luehmann said. “You’ve got East St. Louis, O’Fallon and Belleville East at the top every year, but we hope to break that upper echelon.”