By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas
GRAINFIELD – Wheatland-Grinnell coach Jesse Vincent noted the bulk of Thunderhawks’ size came from its five-member senior class.
The quintet featured linemen Elliot Godek and Wendell Mong and fullback/linebacker Trevor Zarybnicky, one of the eight-man’s top players. Godek was the tallest Thunderhawk at 6-foot-5, 270. Zarybnicky stood 6-3, 235. Mong was at 6-0, 220.
“A great group,” coach Vincent said. “They are (going) to be hard to replace because of their size.”
As well, senior linebacker Luke Bixenman is 5-10, 180. Senior Johnny Phillips, a wide receiver, served as the senior group’s smallest member at 5-9, 140. Godek, Zarybnicky and Mong were the team’s only three players above 180.
Bixenman and sophomore Jett Vincent are each 180.
The seniors joined with a talented group of underclassmen that generally filled the skill positions with junior quarterback Trey Vincent, junior running back Isaac Mendez and junior receiver Ryan Heier. Jett Vincent is established as among eight-man’s best receiver and one of the state’s best defensive backs for all classes.
The roster construction yielded an 8-3 record and run to the Eight-Man, Division II state quarterfinals. Last Friday, W-G lost, 44-26, to Victoria at home and completed the best season in school history. Zarybnicky was featured as SIK’s NexTech Athlete of the Month and led Kansas in tackles. While Zarybnicky and the Vincent brothers are extremely well-known, the other seniors had key contributions, too.
Godek came back to start at center without a healthy ACL.
“He blew out his knee Week 2, literally blew his ACL out,” coach Vincent said. “About four or five weeks later, because of COVID, didn’t get to have the surgery, and then decided that he wanted to try to finish the season, so that’s a lot of guts right there, too.”
Mong entered this season with 94 tackles, 10 for loss in the previous two years. He finished with 112 stops, 10 for loss this fall.
“He had an absolute amazing offseason in the weight room,” Vincent said. “He had never really fully dedicated himself there, but he did, and then his gains in the weight room were huge, and I think that paid off. He had a great season for us.”
Bixenman was also impressive with 104 tackles, eight for loss. He had barely played in the past.
“Just shocked the heck out of me with what he did this year,” coach Vincent said. “Last season, he didn’t even come out till like Week 5, so he’s had a great year.”
Phillips played in six games and contributed 25 catches for 322 yards. Trey Vincent, a three-year starter at quarterback, had battled injuries the last two falls. He completed 122 of 219 passes for 1,739 yards with 24 scores against 12 interceptions. In his career, Vincent has thrown for 3,280 yards with a 45/21 TD/INT ratio in his career.
“He has had a solid year,” coach Vincent said.
Mendez was a breakout player and listed earlier this fall by SIK as one of the state’s most underrated players. He finished with 219 carries for 1,607 yards and 29 scores.
“The tailback is a great athlete, good vision, runs hard,” Victoria coach Doug Oberle said.
Heier contributed across the board with 142 tackles, 8.5 for loss. Junior Tyrell Chapin had 60 stops, 11 for loss and served as the team’s punter. Chapin paced the squad with 11.5 sacks. W-G forced a remarkable 24 fumbles and 27 turnovers overall with defensive coordinator Josh Williams.
“Coach Williams, that’s something we practice every week just different types of drills to dislodge the football,” coach Williams said. “It’s definitely a key point.”
Jett Vincent hauled in 44 catches for 809 yards and 15 scores. He also picked off nine passes, though was thrown at less and less as the season progressed. Victoria had one pass in his direction, and he broke it up. Coach Vincent said his son is working in the weight room to get bigger to help more in run support.
“We found that week after week, they are just not challenging that anymore,” coach Vincent said. “It’s kind of frustrating for him. He feels bored back there.”
Vincent has 22 career interceptions after he led Kansas with 13 as a freshman. The overall record is 32 interceptions from St. John’s Travis Neidig from ’04-07, according to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.
“Obviously, we know that he is a great free safety that roams well,” Oberle said. “Good athlete, good length. High points the ball. Great football player. We certainly knew that about him. We were trying not to get him opportunities.”
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