VAN — Van High football coach Mark Agosti isn’t trying to fool anyone.
“Running the ball is what we do,” he said. “Everybody knows that and we’re going to line up and run at you.”
With an early August roster of just 20 gridders, Agosti said avoiding injuries will be as important as any play made on the field by the Class A Bulldogs in 2022.
Nine of those 20 are seniors, thankfully. The Bulldogs last made the playoffs in 2018.
“We’ve got to keep kids healthy and we’ve got to hold onto the ball better than we did a year ago,” he added.
Van finished 6-4 in 2021 and narrowly missed a playoff berth.
“We look for our defense to keep us in games because we aren’t built to get down by two or three scores and come back,” he added. “We have to control the line of scrimmage to win ballgames. It starts up front. Looking at the stats, that is 200 tackles gone from our team and they guys know someone has to step up.”
Van must replace guard Ridge Flores along with his skilled position playing brother Gunnar, who transferred to George Washington, in addition to All-State selection Isiah Perdue to graduation — who led the team in tackles and the state in tackles for loss one year ago.
Perdue was the 2021 Coal Valley News All-County Defensive Player of the Year.
“Sure, it hurts when you lose kids for whatever the reason,” Agosti said. “At the end of the day, you go to battle with the kids you have, and we feel good about the kids we have. We’re a little young up front (offensive line), but we’re going to be okay.”
The offense looks to spread out enough to keep opposing defenses honest but running the ball is the Bulldogs’ bread and butter.
Shaun Booth will take most of the snaps at quarterback but stealthy backs Brady Green and Byron Stewart will also get direct snaps. Booth will play a hybrid “monster” position on defense as one of the squad’s more aggressive players.
Freshman signal caller Markie Meadows will get situational offensive snaps this season as Agosti looks to familiarize him with varsity play.
Agosti hopes to have both returning running backs gain 1,000 yards each, which will equate success for Van.
It will be the first time since their freshman campaigns that both players will be completely healthy heading into the season and their coach expects big results.
“They are both big guys who run downhill and they’re a load to handle,” Agosti added. “We have a couple of kids who have stuck out at receiver. I’d like to have 15 kids with the work ethic of Jax McCarty.”
McCarty is 6-4 and one of the team’s fastest players.
“We’ll take our shots to him and throw it up and let him go get it — try to find him on a fade (route),” he said.
Up front, 300-pound senior starter Weston Gunnoe will anchor a tackle slot for Van. Sophomore tackle Dalton Kessinger, who is 6-2 and 250 pounds and has gained strength through the team’s off-season workouts, has opened eyes in early drills.
Sophomore Cade Price will start on the interior line and T.J. Harvey will line up at center or guard. Junior Jacob Reed will return at guard as a three-year starter for the Bulldogs.
Free safety Killian Cantwell is a fresh addition to the roster and has impressed with his weight room dedication in the off-season, as has defensive back/receiver Gavin Branham.
Agosti stressed an offseason workout program and chose his captains based on attendance and leadership in the weight room.
Captains for 2022 are McCarty, Booth, Cantwell, Branham and Kessinger.
“We had 52 workouts since baseball season and these guys only missed three or four of them combined, and for me, leadership and hard work like that will be rewarded,” Agosti added.
Booth and Stewart look to be the primary defensive stalwarts for Van with Stewart reclaiming his linebacker post. Green will lineup at outside linebacker.
Van will hold a Military Appreciation ceremony for their homecoming game with Tolsia on Sept. 16 with the coaching staff donning camouflage and encouraging veterans from all branches of the military to attend and be honored.
“We have to win the battle up front and our defense has to rise to the challenge and give us a chance to win,” he concluded.
Defensive coordinator Ron Deal will employ a “Tampa 2” look in terms of scheme, which the staff feels can utilize a smaller but athletic roster.
Assistant coaches are Davey Gogas and Joe Bratcher.
Van kicks off their season on Friday as they host Meadow Bridge.