For the Ell-Saline Cardinals, 2022 was a transition year. The program moved to the 8-Man Division I ranks in the state of Kansas, their first time playing 8-Man Football since the 1990’s.
As expected, there were some growing pains. But according to Head Coach Joe Roche, the good far outweighed the bad.
“Overall, it was great. Our kids had fun,” said Roche on how his team handled the transition. “Besides just a few details offensively, we pretty much just stuck to our same system, and defensively, we kind of struggled defensively because, in 8-man, there’s no overhang, like there is in 11-man football and the options are so limited and if you miss a tackle it could be a game breaker.”
The Cardinals posted a 6-3 record in 2022, advancing out of District play and into the state playoffs before falling to Hoxie. All three of Ell-Saline’s losses a season ago came to top-tier 8-Man programs in Little River, Clifton-Clyde, and the aforementioned Hoxie Indians, with two of the three teams having advanced to the second round of the playoffs, and Little River to the state semifinals.
This season, the Cardinals’ schedule will once again feature both Little River and Clifton-Clyde, meaning that Ell-Saline will once again be prepared to face the best of the best in their division, and Coach Roche wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re coming in with some confidence,” said Coach Roche on his team’s attitude heading into the season. “But just because we think we’re good doesn’t mean anything. We have to prove it every day.”
The Cardinals will return a handful of their key contributors from a season ago, including Melvin Lutes, a two-way player, who tallied over 300 rushing yards last season, as well as Marshall Johnson, the expected starting quarterback for this year’s team.
Johnson played a majority of the games last year for the Cards, but saw sparse repetitions at quarterback, completing just 19 passes total, but throwing four touchdown passes.
“Marshall and I have been working this summer and we’ve been talking about it since last football season ended,” said Roche of his quarterback. “At times, he is a beautiful passer. Way beyond a thrower sometimes.”
In total, Ell-Saline will return five offensive starters and six on defense, which is a great starting point for a program with heightened goals entering this season. Plus, due to some injuries a season ago, a large group of underclassmen saw action early in their careers, which should certainly pay dividends this season.
“We had a rash of injuries in a really short time period last year, about midway through,” said Roche. “We had to have some kids step up and at one time against Clifton-Clyde I think we had five freshmen on the field at the same time, which I have never seen that at Ell-Saline, so I think we gained some experience in that regard and they learned how to be tough and what it took on Friday nights.”
But in addition to the returning production, the Ell-Saline program will also have a large crop of athletes to work with to build depth, as 32 athletes reported for the first day of practice on Monday, the most since Roche took over as Head Coach four seasons ago.
That roster size will no doubt play to the advantage of the Cardinals as they work to greater heights in 2023, and Roche wasn’t shy about it. “We’ve got some kids that are ready and we’re looking forward to it. We’re coming into this season healthy and we’re recouping from a couple of injuries last year so, here we go!”
Ell-Saline will open the 2023 season at home on Friday, September 1st against Moundridge. Fans can tune in to every Ell-Saline game this year on FM 104.9 with Todd Senecal on the call of the action.