By Tony Hooker
Like everyone else, VGH football Coach Heath Wilson has experienced the whole gamut of emotions during the pandemic. From sorrow for his seniors who didn’t get their fall season, to elation when hope for a shortened spring season arose, and everywhere in between. On the eve of their six-game season, I caught up with the coach, who graciously answered questions about his team, his players and much more.
What was it like when you found out the season wasn’t going to take place?
I felt devastation for the seniors. Last spring, the seniors lost their seasons and the juniors lost baseball and track, and then you come out in the fall and everyone is following the guidelines to a tee, wearing the masks, social distancing, creating different groups because you can only have groups of ten lifting all the time, and then all of a sudden, they come out in August and say we’re pushed back to February. It was devastating. Obviously, there was still hope, but it was devastating for both myself and for the seniors.
Were there any silver linings to it? Did the kids get bigger, stronger faster? That sort of thing?
The younger kids got bigger, stronger and faster. As a senior, it was tough to stay committed when your spring seasons had been taken away and all of a sudden, the basketball season was a question mark. If there was a plus in it, it was that the younger kids got bigger. Those freshmen, who are really considered sophomores now, got the extra months of lifting, but that’s basically the only positive I saw in it.
Let’s talk a little bit about your team. You’ve had two weeks of practice now, right?
Two and a half.
And how are they looking?
They’re looking really good. We’re kind of young. We hit a snag for this week one game, with 17 kids out, including 9 potential starters on both sides of the ball, so we’re asking a lot of our young kids to step up in week one against Cerro Gordo Bement. Everyone is back now, practicing, and we’ll be at full strength for week two, and hopefully we’ll be 1-0 when we’re reading this article. <smiles>
Have there been any standouts, so far?
Blake Smith is coming back at quarterback. Carson Howard and Logan Nohren are two of tight end/wide receivers. We’ve got a lot of running backs this year. We’ve got Luke Zimmerman, we’ve got Elijah Kissel, we’ve got Parker Stevens. We’ve got Tyler Wilson. We’ve got quite a few backs whom we’ll be rotating in, keeping those guys fresh. Up front, we’re very young. We’ve got Keaton Junglas, and Daelin Price. We’re asking Joel Bear to do our snaps right now. Connor Black. Carson Block, as a sophomore, is coming in and getting reps on the line. We’re very young up front, but very experienced at the skill positions.
How about the defensive side of the ball?
I think our defense is our strength. We’ve got a lot of athletes and we fly to the ball. We’re a very aggressive defense and those kids are hungry. We’re led by Jack Benschneider, who’s probably one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached. He loves to get in there and get nasty. Ezra Ely is another one, then you’ve got Carson and Logan and Blake Smith. Matt Gulick and Isaac Mahoe. We’re very fast to the ball, so I think defense will be our strength.
What can you tell me about Cerro Gordo Bement?
Their numbers are down, but they have a veteran offensive line coming back. Their quarterback and running back are both veterans. Their roster has 24 players on it and they canceled their JV season, which stinks for our younger kids because quite a few programs have canceled their JV season, and we’re out there looking for games to get our younger guys some experience. Cerro Gordo is a very well coached team and it should be a dog fight.
Any newcomers who have stood out to you?
We have quite a few. Parker Knierem, on the offensive line, is one. He’s a bonus in that he’s never played before and he’s a tank. Gunner Kline will be a running back for us. He’ll get some reps on varsity. He’ll be one you want to keep an eye on for the future, for sure. Brady Clodfelter is going to start week one at corner as a freshman. Then you have some guys that unfortunately had to quarantine who were going to get some looks but unfortunately haven’t yet, like Layne Rund. We have quite a few freshman linemen,, Zach Wells, Landon Kappes, so many that I can’t even think of all of them, that are going to be starters by their sophomore year if they keep working.
Tell me a little about the season. How many games are scheduled?
We have six games. We’ll start with Cerro Gordo Bement and end with Arcola. Knock on wood that we’ll get all our games in, because there are quite a few teams in our conference who’ve had to cancel games already. We’re hoping that our team and whomever we’re scheduled to play stays healthy. We open up with CGB, then we go to Argenta-Oreana, which is kind of exciting because they have a turf field which might be one of the only dry fields we play on this spring! <laughs> Every week is going to be a dog fight.
Are there any teams in the conference that are standing out to you?
Like I said, every week is going to be a dog fight, but I thought a team that would have made a great run other than us was going to be Arthur-Lovington. They bring back a ton of kids from last year’s playoff team. We don’t play them this year, but I think they would be one to keep an eye on. I think our conference overall is one of the best in the state, and every week will be a challenge, something you look forward to. This year, with no playoffs, you’re creating memories for these kids. We hope that every game is competitive and that no one gets hurt and we’ll come out of it healthy and roll right back into it when August gets here.
You’re rolling right back into August, so you’ll have summer workouts?
Yes, we’ll continue to lift and then come June and as soon as baseball and track are over, we’ll give the kids a little break but by the end of June we’ll start practicing and get right back into it for a short turnaround to August.
How about your coaching staff?
I’ve got Coach Hennessy as my main assistant. I guess you can call him my right-hand man. Shane Halcomb is calling the defense. Lucas Wilson coaches our DB’s and Phil Hawthorn is our special teams coordinator. Blake Wilhelm and Clayton Hooker are our offensive and defensive line coaches, and Gavin Gunter is our quarterbacks coach. Coach Corey White from Heritage is one of our volunteer assistants. He’s going to mostly be there on game days. I think we’ve got one of the best coaching staffs in the state of Illinois. They are putting the time in to make us better.
Is Blake (Smith) throwing the ball pretty well?
Blake is throwing the ball really well. We don’t know whether we’ll be able to throw the ball from week to week because of field conditions, it might be a running the ball type of day, but he’s looked real good back there. Once we get everyone back by week two and everybody’s back at full strength, I think we’ll be something to reckon with.
Is there anything you would like to add, coach?
No. Just looking forward to the season for these kids. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to play high school football under the lights and hopefully we can get here and play every week, keep everyone healthy and go out and make some memories.