When Bart Elliott talks about the kids he coaches, there’s a tone of admiration for the level of commitment from his players. By the end of the season, he believes this self-motivation and sacrifice will give Wayne an edge when it comes to speed, strength and mobility. And it will be this hard work in the off-season that eventually carries his team into the playoffs.
Mincing no words, Elliott states that the goal this year is to host a home playoff game. To do so, they must finish in the top two spots in their district.
That’s an admirable goal for a team in only its second year of eight-man football. The learning curve is smaller because of the preparation Elliott himself put into that first season. When he learned of the transition at Wayne, he talked to his former coach at Melcher-Dallas, which had already made the switch to eight-man. He then traveled to Worth County, Mo., to speak with a coach with success in eight-man, and to study hours of film.
“I tried to talk to players and their parents to educate them on the difference between eight-man and 11-man,” Elliott says. “I also taught football more often as a PE teacher.”
There are differences. The field is 80 yards by 40 yards, and with fewer players the game is more wide open. Once a ball carrier breaks through to the secondary, many one-on-one match-ups take place. Final scores resemble arena football.
When you step on the field, there’s more room on the sidelines, but once the helmet is on, the game is not much different.
“It’s still football,” Elliott says, after having coached 11-man for 11 years. He will be in his fifth year as head coach at Wayne. “It’s still about the basics of tackling and blocking, and the fundamentals of each position.”
This year’s squad can build on the many positives from the previous fall, when Wayne started 5-0 in route to its first postseason since 1989. They played some tough teams and found out how good they really were, Elliot explained. The most satisfying moment was a victory over Corning at home, after a string of two losses. They needed to go into the playoffs with a positive mindset, and it wasn’t an easy win, as the coaching staff made some adjustments at halftime and Corning fought hard. Wayne finished 7-2 to end the year.
Before last season, as motivation, Elliott focused on the tradition at Wayne. He brought the 1989 playoff trophy to practice. Assistant Coach Scott Valentine introduced the idea of honorary captains—former coaches and players for every home game, including Paul Epperly and Tork Hook. Some of the players had never heard of Hook, the former safety at the University of Iowa who still holds the school record for interceptions in a bowl game. They also brought in some of the players’ fathers and uncles that played on those great 80s teams.
This fall, success will be built from the off-season. A workout program meant to improve speed, quickness and strength saw its fifth and most successful year. After averaging between 30 and 35 participants the previous three years, regular attendance nearly doubled to around 70. Elliott believes that it is not just because he pushed the program—students from 6th through 12th grades practice three times a week for half-an-hour a day from February through May, and it became a routine the kids liked. They got hooked. And the students encouraged each other to keep working.
Combine this with a weight-training program Elliott calls the best it’s ever been, and the number of football players participating in track, and you see a foundation being built.
In addition, eight to 10 members of the team participated in a passing camp at Graceland University, best described as an organized touch football game. This allowed a greater familiarization with the playbook. It built confidence between quarterback and receivers, especially for guys that hadn’t played as much, but also helped with defensive preparation. The highlight of this camp was a victory over a sound Mt. Ayr team—a high school that still plays 11-man—which Elliott described as exciting and a confidence booster for the upcoming season.
Though this fall’s squad lost five seniors to graduation, there is reason for continued optimism. All-around athlete Dillon Lain returns at quarterback after passing for over 1,200 yards and being named first team all-district.
“He’s grown as a passer and as a decision maker,” Elliott says. “He’s a smart kid that picks up on things really well.”
Lain finished fifth in state at last year’s high jump, and he is effective both running and throwing the ball.
Much of the offenses success, however, will fall on the shoulders of running back Clayton Kiefer, who ran for over 1,300 yards last year. Elliott describes him as a hard worker with good speed, who has been clocked at a 4.6 in the 40.
Kiefer will run behind linemen Evan Sinclair and Tate VanDyne. They boast experience, size, and speed and neither are afraid to hit. Expect big years from them on both sides of the ball.
Trent Carpenter will be one of Lain’s main targets. He plays wide receiver and occasionally running back. Elliott describes him as a big playmaker that is very quick with good hands.
One major obstacle will be the loss of leading tackler C.D. Kunzie, who tore his ACL and will be sidelined for the entire season. He was one of Elliott’s hardest workers, playing linebacker, fullback, and wide receiver. Kunzie will be sorely missed his senior year.
During the fall, expect more young players to step up and fill the holes left by Kunzie and the departed seniors. The team is looking for depth on the line, and for a tight end to replace Tanner Robinson, who caught passes for over 500 yards a year ago. Levi Overstreet, Tyler Jameson and Carson Kiefer are all possible breakout players, with many others looking to emerge and fill roles.
Elliott’s offensive philosophy includes employing multiple formations and attacking the defense in a variety of ways. He believes this creates confusion for the opposition, and that it is beneficial for his players to experience different sets and to be flexible. Offense, of course, varies with personnel. Expect the run 60 percent this year, and for the offense to flow through Clayton Kiefer behind Sinclair and VanDyne. But, Elliott adds, “We’ll definitely be able to throw the ball as well.”
The defense will align mostly in the 3-3 to take advantage of team speed and to get to the opposing ball carrier. Elliott feels their foremost goal should be to control the defensive line of scrimmage, and to do a better job than last year of stopping the run.
This fall’s schedule features a match-up with long-time rival Seymour and homecoming with Moravia, but the biggest game might be in week four at powerful Murray. Corning consolidated with Villisca in the off-season, returning to 11-man, which caused a need to shuffle teams around. In stepped Murray, the runner-up at state two years ago.
“It will definitely be a challenge playing at their place,” Elliott says. “And good for our guys to play a team with that level of success.”
With hard work and motivation from past greats, Elliott and the football team hope to return to that level of success made familiar by Tork Hook and Wade Harmon. They hope to build their own legacy.