Former Neuqua Valley assistant Ben Kleinhans has taken over the reins at Metea Valley, hoping to build on a program that went 4-5 last year, but faltered after a 3-0 start.
For Ben Kleinhans, this summer was something he has never experienced before.
Officially instilled as Ted Monken’s replacement at Metea Valley back in April, Kleinhans took as much time as he could learning exactly what he has — time considered all the more vital because he didn’t finish up his duties at Neuqua Valley until the end of the school year.
“(The summer) was huge. Each day, it seemed like when I’d get out of there, I had learned something new about a kid or about what we had,” he said. “It’s just a process of just trying to take small steps forward each day and not get too caught up in thinking about long term. You only get so much time in the summer, just try to make some little improvements each day and pick it up a little bit more with a new system and new coaches.
“So there were days where you walked away in the summer and you’re excited and you can’t wait. And there were others you walk away and you’re like, ‘Oh man, we’ve got a lot of work to do.’ I think we’re taking the necessary steps to where we need to go.”
What the 1999 Waubonsie Valley graduate inherits from Monken, who resigned in December after leading the program through its first two years, is a 4-5 football team that entered Week 8 still alive for a postseason spot.
Because Metea Valley’s numbers still aren’t where they’ll be in the coming years, pressure will reside on several three-year varsity players to produce early and often.
Senior running back Cameron Wilcox and senior wide receiver Alex Hagemaster, who finished second on the team with his 10 receptions in 2011, are back to help the Mustangs on offense. Wilcox led the team in rushing with 622 yards and seven touchdowns.
Subbing for the since-graduated Tre’Sean Mackey in the Mustangs’ season opener against Plainfield East and helping Mackey carry the load the next week against Quincy, which both resulted in victories, Wilcox combined to run for 367 yards and five touchdowns on 41 carries.
“He’s obviously a big part of our offense. A returning running back is always so nice to have, especially one with the talent that he’s got,” Kleinhans said of Wilcox.
Junior Blaise Bell, a transfer from Missouri City, Texas, will take over for Jarrett House at quarterback for the Mustangs.
House and two other quarterbacks combined to throw for only 798 yards and nine touchdowns for an offense that sputtered to score points after combining to score 116 points in Metea Valley’s first three games.
Bell will be counted on to try and infuse some explosiveness into a new offensive system that Kleinhans will be implementing after spending the last three years as Neuqua Valley’s quarterback coach.
“I think he’s a player that his athleticism kind of puts him in good spots to make plays,” Kleinhans said of Bell. “With that, we’re still kind of developing the system with him. Don’t want to throw too much at him too soon as a first-year varsity starter and a junior and things like that.
“But we’re excited about his potential and what he can bring to the position as things get more comfortable with the system. But he’s a fun kid that we think, as we get close to the season and the season progresses, is a guy that can go out and win games for us.”
Senior linebackers Donovan Rowsey, who had 49 tackles and a pair of sacks, and Jake Murawski will lead the defense.
Murawski led Jeff Cherry’s unit with 50 tackles last season, and Kleinhans kept Cherry on to run the defense that the returnees have been using throughout the program’s infancy.
“Those guys, the three-year guys, they’re definitely (people) that we’re counting on — especially early in the year when the younger guys kind of catch up to the game, with the varsity speed and all that,” Kleinhans said.
Racing out to a 3-0 start, the Mustangs lost their next five games within the Upstate Eight Valley by a combined margin of 213-27, including being shut out three times in that span.
Finding a way to be able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of its two sister schools, Waubonsie Valley and Neuqua Valley, which beat the Mustangs by a combined score of 103-6, is imperative to get to the next level.
“We definitely want to continue and need to get more and more competitive with those teams,” Kleinhans said. “You just kind of gain confidence off each win and each positive outing that we have on Friday nights. Hopefully we can just get on a run where we firmly believe we can go and step on the field with anybody in our conference and play with them and beat them.”