FOOTBALL: Young Saline Football Team Has Playmakers, But Plenty to Learn

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The Saline High School varsity football team is riding high in the pre-season polls after another unbeaten regular season and SEC Red championship. And with nationally-known football stars like QB CJ Carr and high-profile recruits like TE Dylan Mesman, it’s easy to understand why.

Head coach Joe Palka understands football games aren’t won on paper, recruiting profiles and pre-season polls. Instead, Palka sees a young football team opening the season against tough opponents in Hudsonville and Huron - and sticks to a coaching mantra that’s never changed.

“We want to get better every week,” Palka said. “We’re going to be very young. We could start three sophomores on the offensive line. This isn’t a popular sentiment, but we could lose some early games. But we’re not going to worry about that. Our whole objective is to be good at the end of the season.”

When high school football guru Mick McCabe of the Detroit Free Press says Saline is a year away from being a “powerhouse,” you can see what he’s saying. But Palka and the Hornets don’t want to wait until next fall. Their goal is to hit powerhouse mode by the end of October.

“We want to be good at the end of the year and have a playoff run. We’re not going to worry about going unbeaten or matching expectations - because right now, that’s just not realistic,” Palka said.

On the other hand, we’ve heard sentiments like these from Palka before. And in that time, they’ve won 45 straight SEC Red games and eight straight conference championships. Only last year, this team lost starting QB Larry Robinson and RB Josh Rush, and the Hornets found a way to steal the opening game against Hudsonville in the Big House thriller and then go unbeaten in the regular season.

Getting better every week is even better when you start with a win.

Quarterback

Junior CJ Carr had a magnificent season last year, completing 156 242 passes for 2,676 yards while throwing 28 touchdowns and four interceptions. As a result, the already prized recruit zoomed to the top of the class in national rankings. The 6’2, 195-pound Carr committed to Notre Dame this summer.

Palka said Carr has handled the hype well.

“He comes to work every day. He learns. He listens. He practices hard. He knows what he needs to improve on and he just keeps working hard to get better,” Palka said.

He’s poised to have a monster year.

He’s backed up by his young brother, Tommy Carr and senior Roman Laurio (the team’s split end). Tommy will start as the JV quarterback and play in emergency situations.

Laurio, who made several highlight reel catches last year, was quarterback at the JV level as a freshman and capable of holding down the fort.

Running Back

Ryan Niethammer is the starting running back. Last year he carried 89 times for 347 and seven touchdowns. After a slow start, he was hitting his stride when he suffered an injury that kept him out for several games.

“He’s a veteran leader who seems to get stronger the more reps he gets in. He doesn’t wear down. He’s a downhill runner who’s going to go straight ahead,” Palka said.

Palka wants to develop another key running back as the season proceeds. Nate Walper, Anderson Holloway and Isaac Furlong - all sophomores - are the top candidates.

“We probably don’t have that homerun threat at running back, but we’ll be hard to stop,” Palka said.

Receiver

Palka said the receiving corps is likely the strength of the team in terms of talent and depth.

Senior Roman Laurio caught 54 passes for 953 yards and seven TDs. Senior Garrett Baldwin, starting on defense, caught 22 passes for 489 yards and two TDs. Junior TE Dylan Mesman had 4 receptions for two TDs before an injury ended his season.

Palka said junior Caid Fox, senior Kyle Barbarino, and senior Matt Walper will start. Palka said the team is excited to see how Fox develops as a slot receiver.

Laurio and Carr built a great connection on the field last year.

“Roman is a talented and fast kid - a really tough kid. He brings great route-running, the toughness to break tackles and he’s got excellent hands and the ability to go up and get the ball,” Palka said. “He’s just got great all-around ability.”

Mesman, who was in the news recently as a potential Michigan State University recruit, is an athletic, 6’5, 230-pound junior with great hands. He’ll be an inviting target for Carr.

On top of that, his blocking game is improving.

“We’re really excited about the way his blocking game has grown. He’s becoming a really good blocker. He’s also got great hands and excellent ball skills. He can also do good things after he makes the catch,” Palka said. “So he’s really developing into a full-fledged, all-around tight end,” Palka said.

Palka said the group has big-play ability.

Offensive Line

The offensive and defensive lines are the subjects of most of this team’s questions.

As Palka said, the team could start as many as three sophomores on the OL.

The starting lineup is beginning to take shape after practices and scrimmages. At TE, you’ll see the aforementioned Mesman.

The most veteran player is senior Keldon Perron at RG. He didn’t start last year but took a lot of reps. Junior Nick Sutherby will start at LT. Sophomore Cam Pawlick, whose family moved in from South Dakota, will start at RT. Junior Michael Reder is penciled in as the starter at LG - but Reder may be pressed into action on the DL. Junior Isaiah Gifford could start at LG. Isaac Furlong should start at C. The team had expected junior Ryan Bloch to start on the line but injuries have kept him out of practice.

“As a unit, the one thing they’ve been doing pretty well right now is pass protection. That’s an important aspect for us and they’re getting better and better,” Palka said.

He also likes their mobility, which should help on the counters.

“We need them to grow up on the job this year,” Palka said.

Defensive Line

The defensive line is definitely a more experienced, senior-laden group

The Hornets may be a bit undersized in the middle, where seniors Zack Miller and Andrew Hartley start at tackle. Reder might start there if there’s an injury. On the end, senior Tate Bezeau is the most experienced member of the unit and probably the team’s best defensive lineman. On the other end, senior Sam Kreuzer is getting his shot.

Palka said defensive coordinator Duane Wilson likes the way the DL and linebackers are coming along.

“Through two scrimmages, he thought our front seven was further ahead than it was last year at this point,” Palka said.

Linebacker

The Hornets have an athletic group of linebackers coming back.

Senior Sullivan Mills is a returning starter who made clutch plays last year and he’s looked good in the scrimmages.

“He made a couple great plays, running down guys along the sidelines to prevent touchdowns,” Palka said.

Senior Jackson Conley is also expected to start for the first time. Junior Ryan Stein is expected in the other starting job. Stein was hampered by an injury last year that kept him from a lot of action.

“These three guys are playing pretty well. They are athletic and they can run, sideline to sideline,” Palka said.

Secondary

Sam Miller and Cade Tousa are starting at corner. Miller went out for football part-way through last year and has worked himself into a starting role, Palka said.

“They’re both veterans and they’re getting better every day,” Palka said.

At safety, Garrett Baldwin and James Chickwe are starting. Caid Fox will also take a lot of reps at safety.

Baldwin is the leader of the secondary.

“If he’s not the best player on the team, he’s one of the top two. He does so much for us, whether it’s in the backfield, or special teams or on offense. He’s just a great high school football player,” Palka said.

Special Teams

Laurio and Baldwin will take the kickoff returns and Tousa will return the punts.

“We definitely have big play ability,” Palka said.

Niethammer and Isaac Furlong will punt. CJ Carr will also do some punting.

Riley Behrman is the team’s top placekicker and will see most of the reps there. Ethan Cotsonika and Jason Piniatoglou will also place kick.

That’s how your Hornets will look to start the season. How they get to the finish is what makes things interesting.

Palka was asked about the team’s personality.

“It’s funny because we were just talking about it and we don’t fully know yet. It’s been a pretty quiet group. It’s a young group. We graduated a lot of leaders last year and young leaders are going to have to step up and be that type of guy who helps get the team going and build the identity of this team,” Palka said.

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