Despite hefty turnover, Storm has become family on the gridiron

 

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CATLIN — Change is the main theme surrounding Salt Fork football ahead of its 2019 campaign.

The Storm has a new coach for the first time since the school district's 2015 formation, with Joe Hageman taking over for longtime leader Brian Plotner.

Hageman will require several new starters, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

On top of all that, Salt Fork's athletes aren't even preparing for the 2019 season in their previously-established ways.

Specifically when it comes to lifting weights.

"We've had to go to a different room to do cleans and stuff like that," rising senior Jacob McGee said.

"The ag shop," fellow rising senior Josh Weller clarified.

"Got to do what you've got to do," McGee countered.

The Storm's indoor base was receiving a new paint job last week — one in a number of ongoing renovations for the No. 8 team in our preseason poll.

But that isn't slowing Hageman's crew, which aims to give Hageman his first victory on Aug. 31 against South Beloit.

"Especially because it's going to be on a Saturday, everyone's going to be here," rising senior Payton Taylor said. "He deserves it."

Plotner's sudden resignation earlier this year doesn't seem to be throwing off the returning veterans on Salt Fork, whose last ride with Plotner resulted in a 6-4 record and a Class 1A postseason appearance.

"They've responded pretty well (to the coaching change)," said Hageman, a 1994 Catlin graduate who served as Plotner's offensive coordinator for nine years. "They've bought in, and they're showing up and doing the right things and being encouraging of each other."

Hageman's main focus in his first offseason at the helm has been clear-cut.

"We spend a lot of time talking about being a good teammate," Hageman said. "Good teammates can make good teams."

That viewpoint is rubbing off on Hageman's pupils.

"In the past years, we've been just teammates. But this offseason we've become like a family," Taylor said. "Everyone's closer this year than it's ever been in my years of high school."

That's certainly good news considering how the Storm concluded its 2018 run.

Following a 5-0 start, Salt Fork dropped four of its final five games. That included a buzzer-beating defeat at the hands of Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin, a seven-point loss to Oakwood and a first-round playoff setback at Arcola.

"We're a lot more focused this year than we were last year," Taylor said. "For sure."

Taylor remains the driving force on the Storm defense. The linebacker has led the area each of the last two seasons in tackles, making 151 stops last year.

"He's there every day, does all the offseason stuff, doesn't miss anything and really is a great leader," Hageman said. "So that's really what puts him on top, in my opinion, is the extra things he does."

Taylor also can be a bowling ball at running back to complement rising junior Tate Johnson, who came on strong as a sophomore (475 rushing yards) and experienced what Hageman called "a good track season."

Then there's playcalling, with duties falling to either Weller or rising senior Kieler Bennett.

"Kieler has a really good arm," Hageman said. "Good thrower, sees the field really well. Josh has a good arm ... and then maybe (he's) a little bit more of a running-type kid."

It appears likely Salt Fork will employ a smashmouth style of ball that frequently appears in Vermilion Valley Conference programs.

The Storm feels confident its brand will get Hageman win No. 1 in attempt No. 1 — and plenty more afterward.

"I'm excited and nervous all at the same time," Hageman said. "Got to think about everything in the program. ... Kind of forces me to take a bigger-picture approach to the whole program."

Monday morning quarterback

Gage Romack has graduated, taking with him 1,295 passing yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Stepping in for him will be one of two seniors in Josh Weller or Kieler Bennett, neither of whom saw many reps after Romack returned following a Week 1 absence. "They’re both very talented kids, smart kids," Storm coach Joe Hageman said, "and bring different skill sets."

Coach speak

Hageman took over for Brian Plotner earlier this year after Plotner resigned following 17 seasons in charge, including all four in Salt Fork High School’s history since the school district was established in 2015. "The kids are showing up to do the things they need to do to get better," Hageman said. "Just trying to get them to kind of understand my philosophy and the direction we want to go."

We’re talking playoffs

➜ Its first playoff win since the formation of Salt Fork’s school district happened ... in 2015, when Salt Fork defeated Brown County 28-20 in a Class 1A first-round game.

➜ Its most recent playoff win was ... in 2016 when the Storm defeated Stockton 43-42 in a Class 1A first-round game.

➜ Its best-ever finish was ... a Class 1A second-round berth in both 2015 and 2016, as an 11 and 14 seed, respectively.

When you can see Salt Fork

DATE    OPPONENT    TIME

Aug. 31    vs. South Beloit    2 p.m.

Sept. 6    at Watseka    7 p.m.

Sept. 13    vs. Georgetown-RF    7 p.m.

Sept. 20    vs. Westville    7 p.m.

Sept. 27    vs. Oblong    7 p.m.

Oct. 4    vs. Paxton-Buckley-Loda    7 p.m.

Oct. 11    at Hoopeston/A-P    7 p.m.

Oct. 18    at BHRA    7 p.m.

Oct. 25    vs. Oakwood    7 p.m.

Prep Sports Coordinator

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).