Southeast Polk linebacker Deion Mikesell charged forward towards the runner in scrimmage during football practice at the high school in Pleasant Hill on Wednesday afternoon August 13, 2014.
PLEASANT HILL, Ia. — Entering his 40th year as a varsity head coach, Denny Muller knows a thing or two about patience.
With no clear starting quarterback and a “brutal” non-district slate less than two weeks away, Southeast Polk will need it this season.
“Right now, we’re an average football team,” Muller said. “But I think there are a lot of average football teams.”
The Rams will entrust their standout seniors with guiding through the growing pains. Top rusher Caleb Pavon, all-state lineman Jake Marnin and top tackler Deion Mikesell will begin their third varsity seasons with four games against playoff teams, including Waukee and Valley on back-to-back weeks.
“Coaches talked to us about leading a couple times, but they understand that we’re leaders of this team and we have to take that responsibility,” Mikesell said.
“That means going 100 percent in every practice and every rep now so that we’re better this fall.”
Pavon ran for 881 yards and 12 touchdowns in last year’s 7-4 campaign. He was held to just 13 yards in two meetings with Dowling Catholic, including the second-round playoff loss that ended Southeast Polk’s season.
The defending Class 4-A state champions are off the schedule this year, but Pavon is still expecting to carry a greater load against the tougher teams his young offense will face.
“We need to get everybody to realize that just because we’re the seniors, that doesn’t make it our team,” Pavon said. “We’re all a part of this team, and everybody needs to treat it like it’s their senior year.”
After six years of Kody Ingle (2007-09) and Kyle Starcevich (2010-12) at starting quarterback, the Rams went to Nick Arnold last season, a senior that was proven as Starcevich’s backup. His graduation means an opening day starter with no varsity experience.
“We’re down to two kids, but that may change, and we move a sophomore quarterback up,” Muller said. “There are too many question marks yet.”
That uncertainty means more reliance on a defense that showed flashes of dominance last season. Mikesell recorded 81 tackles and five sacks as a second team all-state selection, and he’ll be flanked by J.J. Cole (56 tackles), Ben Bakeris (42 tackles, eight for loss) and safety Brady Buchheit (35 tackles, three sacks).
“This is a big opportunity for us to set a strong example and get the young guys to understand the tradition of Southeast Polk football,” Mikesell said.
After allowing 82 points in a 0-2 start, 2013’s defense settled in and posted consecutive shutouts in district play.
Repeating that long-term development could be vital if the Rams want to earn a fifth straight playoff berth.
“When we go full-contact, you see it step up a little more,” Muller said. “Every team is different, but it all depends on how hard they work. If they improve that some as the year goes on, we could be a decent football team.”
Pavon knows all about wait-and-see. Running behind the near 300-pound Marnin at left tackle is his, and likely his offense’s, key to success.
“We’ve always been a program that’s not the tallest or fastest people out there, but we’re known for being one of the toughest teams out there,” Pavon said.
Southeast Polk opens its season at Johnston on Aug. 29.
Aug. 29 at Johnston, 7:30
Sept. 5 vs. Waukee, 7:30
Sept. 12 vs. W.D.M. Valley, 7:30
Sept. 19 at Ankeny Centennial, 7
Sept. 26 vs. D.M. East, 7:30
Oct. 3 vs. C.B. Thomas Jefferson, 7
Oct. 10 at Ames, 7
Oct. 17 vs. Sioux City North, 7
Oct. 24 at Ankeny, 7