On the heels of a roller-coaster 7-4 season, Vilonia coach Jim Stanley has gone back to the ground level.
The Eagles, who lost to Batesville in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs last season, were plagued by an assortment of penalties and fundamental mistakes.
"This year in preseason, we went back like it was their first day of football in the seventh grade; both in the spring and the preseason, it was a lot of fundamentals," said Stanley, whose team will be the first Faulkner County team to open the season (Tuesday against Sylvan Hills at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock). "We went back to the basics more than I have with a team in a long time."
He’s hoping that it all results in another playoff appearance and a longer run.
"Last year was a good season, but I was disappointed that we didn’t go farther in the playoffs," Stanley said. "We think we can have a team that can make the playoffs. If you get in, anything can happen. It seems two or three teams from our conference get to the semifinals and somebody is playing for a state championship every year. We have high expectations, but expectations are always high here."
The leader will be running back James Sax, who has gotten better and better from spring work, 7-on-7 and in the preseason. Sax is one of the best athletes at the Class 5A level in the state, finishing second in the 300 hurdles at the Meet of Champs after winning the event and the 100 and 200 meters in the conference meet and accounting for 47 points in the state meet.
"Sax has really turned it on and is running the ball hard and really playing hard," said Stanley.
He will be a focal point of the Eagles’ double-wing attack, which will be based on angles, finesse and deception much like some of his great teams of the past.
One key will be replacing all-state quarterback Drew Knowles, one of the best triple-option operators in the state. Those duties will be taken over by Jake Steward (5-foot-11, 190), who is probably a more physical runner than Knowles. Seniors James Gardner and David Jauch (5-10, 180), whom Stanley rates as the team’s best athlete, pound for pound, and Jake Wiedmaier are experienced in the backfield.
The Eagles return several veterans in what projects to be a strong offensive line. All-state candidate Chris Calhoun, 5-10, 240, is the leader of that ground.
Vilonia doesn’t change much on its offensive and defensive philosophy.
"But I try to adapt things to what my kids can do," Stanley said.
The defense should be led by Calhoun, at end, and Wiedmaier at linebacker, both three-year regulars. Jake Kirk projects to be a solid linebacker.
Ian Brenner (6-3, 190) gives height in a secondary that the Eagles haven’t had during Stanley’s 10 years at the school. Jauch, as a safety, will add an athletic element to the secondary.
Sax is dangerous every time he touches the ball, including returns. Gardner should be one of the best kicking specialists in the conference.
CAUSE FROM CONCERN
It appears Sax has to have a great year for the Eagles to be highly successful and Steward has to be steady and capable in taking over for Knowles. And offense is a key. Vilonia was 0-4 last year when it scored 21 or fewer points and 7-0 when it scored 28 or more points.
Depth and avoiding major injury are always a concern for Vilonia in the rugged 5A West.