The 2022 Salina Central football season was one of growth and promise. A school with a proud history and tradition on the gridiron returned to the top, winning the AVCTL-II title and pushing to the 5A State Quarterfinals.
2023 now brings heightened expectations, a welcomed challenge if you ask anyone inside the Mustang offices. A sign on the window to Head Coach Mark Sandbo’s office reads “pressure is a privilege,” and that’s exactly how they see it.
Under the direction of Sandbo, the Mustangs have improved their win total in each of the last two seasons, and after their showing last fall, they’ve gotten ample attention as one of the favorites in the 5A West.
As six-time State Champions, Salina Central is no stranger to that pressure, or lofty expectations, but this year, they’ll have to prove why they belong back at the top.
The Mustangs lost just 10 seniors to graduation, but of those lost, four of which have gone on to play college football, and perhaps none bigger than all-state selection in running back Kenyon McMillan.
His replacement? Senior Elijah Wilson, who saw reps in the backfield in 2022, replacing McMillan during a handful of games late when he was out with injury, so he’s got the experience, and Coach Sandbo has no worries at all.
“Elijah’s had a fantastic camp. He’s had fantastic growth within our program. He’s gotten to sit back and learn, and then he’s played in some big games for us and done some big things,” said Sandbo. “He’s ready to demand the ball and we’re excited to hand it to him and see the kinds of things he can do.”
Fortunately for Wilson, he’ll likely have highways paved in front of him by a strong offensive line. The Mustangs will start an offensive line on Friday night that would get any coach excited, and Coach Sandbo is certainly no exception.
“They’re 5A big. And we have depth there,” said Sanbo of the offensive line. “Coach Chesney has done a terrific job with that group. They always get better. Week in, week out, from practice one to where we are, they’ve taken some big steps, and it’s a very prideful group. That’s what you want from those guys.”
Sophomore Kaden Snyder (6-5, 260 lb.) will be the youngest starter up front for Central to start the year. He’ll be joined in the trenches by junior Gage Gibson (6-4, 240 lb.), as well as seniors Kolbe Shafer (5-10, 201 lb.), Addison Branstetter (6-1, 25 lb.), and Anthony Ortigoza-Austin (5-8, 245 lb.).
And on top of all of that, the Mustangs will return four different wide receivers who combined for just shy of 1,000 yards last fall. They’ll also insert senior transfer Ryker Grossner into the lineup, who comes from Baldwin City where he had a standout season a year ago.
Senior wideouts Dez Gibson, Hunter Mowery, and Sam Payne highlight the returnees on the outside on one of the state’s most potent offenses last season, as the Mustangs averaged over 42 points per game.
All that and we haven’t even mentioned the quarterback.
Gunnar Gross returns for his second season as the full-time starter on the Mustangs’ offense. Last season, he became the second Central quarterback to ever rush and pass for over 1,000 yards in the same season. He amassed 1,639 yards and 14 touchdowns passing, and 1,124 rushing yards and a whopping 22 rushing scores.
“I would say the biggest thing from him wasn’t a physical aspect, it wasn’t an athletic aspect, it wasn’t throwing, I would say the big step has been his leadership. It’s kind of more demanding, an expectation aligning with the standard that we have,” said Sandbo. “When you can have a guy wearing a uniform pull those guys along, that’s really positive for your program and team, and that’s probably been his biggest step.”
All things considered, the Mustang offense in 2023 has the pieces in place to lead them to great heights, and that should be more than enough to excite every Central supporter in Saline County, but there are still some questions to answer, specifically as it relates to the other side of the football.
Last season, Central replaced nine defensive starters, and they certainly felt growing pains, allowing over 32 points per contest, but over the final month of the season, that average shrank by a touchdown per game, leaving plenty of reason for optimism in Defensive Coordinator Austin Kingsbury’s squad.
This season, Salina Central will replace just four bodies on defense, but all of them were key cogs in the defensive machine a season ago.
“We’re going to have to replace some good football players,” said Sanbo of his defense. “There was a reason we had the success we had. Ten of them were seniors and a couple of them were really counted on on that side of the ball, but we’re excited to return the type of kids that we have on that side of the ball, the experience they bring from that side of the ball, the big games that they’ve played in, and then just another year of speed and physicality.”
The secondary will no doubt be the strength of the defense, as they return All-Leaguers Dez Gibson and Levi Losey, as well as Jameer Moore, a 6-3 corner with speed that has garnered attention from coaches at the next level.
The linebackers will also have a great core to build around in senior Donovan Johnson, the returning leader in tackles for Salina Central this fall (76 in 2022), as well as junior Ty Young (61 tackles in 2022) who also played a key part in the defense last fall.
Up front, James MacKinney is set to anchor the Mustang’s 3-4 defense with 25 tackles last season, including 6 tackles for loss.
There are still a handful of lessons to be learned about the Mustang defense, but rest assured, they will be prepared and undoubtedly motivated on Friday night when the ball is kicked. Not only will it be their first football action of 2023 but they’ll look to snag their third-straight win against crosstown rival Salina South in the 54th Annual Mayor’s Cup. The stands will be full, the weather will be warm, and the Mustangs will be ready to roll.
Fans can tune in to the Mayor’s Cup, and every Mustang game this season, on 1150 KSAL, 106.7 FM and online at KSAL.com.