Cardinals switch gears, league

FAIRMONT – Fairmont football mentor Mat Mahoney contours each year’s offensive scheme to fit his personnel instead of the reverse.

The young prodigy’s adaptive coaching style has produced a .680 winning percentage, four South Central Conference championships and two state appearances in just seven seasons at the Cardinals’ helm.

Fairmont shattered nearly every passing record in the gridiron program’s rich history to generate an 8-3 overall record and a spot in the Class AAA state quarterfinals in 2013.

Record-setting quarterback Spencer Chirpich connected on 57.9 percent of his passes – 150-for-259 – to amass an incredible 2,121 yards and 33 touchdowns to engineer the Cardinals’ second Prep Bowl appearance in the past three seasons.

While Chirpich returns under center for his senior campaign, the biggest question being pondered throughout the newly-formed Big South Conference focuses on the status of the 6-foot-1, 170-pounder’s talented throwing arm.

“The gunslinger has officially been cleared to play,” Mahoney said with a smile. “While he did tear the UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) in his arm, he’s opted to wait until after the (2015) baseball season to have Tommy John surgery on it.”

“You’ve got to give this kid credit for his toughness, battling through two major injuries during his junior and senior years,” Mahoney said in reference to Chirpich, who underwent hip surgery for femoroacetabular impingement syndrome after the completion of last fall’s football campaign.

While Chirpich’s arm has been deemed healthy enough to throw a spiral, the Cardinals’ top three pass catchers have moved on to college, with the fourth-leading receiver – senior Cole Emler – expected to miss the entire football season due to a torn ACL and MCL suffered during the sectional baseball tournament.

So, what direction will Mahoney and new offensive coordinator Chris Voss steer the Cardinals toward in 2014?

“One of the things that I’ve learned is that you have to use your strengths, and in our case this year, that’s our running backs,” said Mahoney. “They’re strong, tough and fast. Our depth at that position is key. We’ve got a lot of guys who can play for us in the backfield.”

Chris Fausch, a 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore, and Thomas Willett, a 5-11, 160-pound sophomore, return to take handoffs from Chirpich after being inserted into the Cardinals’ starting lineup during the latter stages of last year.

Fausch finished his freshman campaign as the team’s No. 2 rusher with 229 yards and three TDs on 38 carries from his fullback spot.

Fausch and senior Colton Cunning will “pack a 1-2 punch” from the fullback spot, according to Mahoney, while Willett will rotate with junior Peter Erickson and junior Brady Jensen at tailback.

Senior Ben Abel, who proved a valuable backup tight end a year ago, will join sophomore Levi Bulfer at the wide receiver spots, with the senior trio of Matt Lytle, Parker Monsen and Nate Johnson providing sure-handed depth to the receiving core.

Kale Fritz, a 6-3, 185-pound junior, and 6-7, 200-pound sophomore Walker Tordsen will battle 6-2, 170-pound junior Jack Waletich for playing time at tight end.

While Mahoney’s roster possesses talented depth at the skill positions – including junior backup quarterback Tyler Tennyson, the Fairmont mentor’s offensive line is nearly as deep and skilled.

Senior Bailey Koppen, a 6-4, 300-pound senior, returns to his familiar tackle spot in the trenches, and will be bookended by 6-1, 230-pound sophomore Kade Fritz.

Junior Luis Figueroa returns to handle the snapping duties at center, while 6-4, 245-pound senior Mitch Anderton and senior Zachary Ramos will flank Figueroa at the starting guard spots.

Mahoney also anticipates junior Jake Kallenbach, junior Dustin Meyer and junior Mark Washa working into the offensive line mix during the season.

“We (coaching staff) expect our defense to be physical, and that will start upfront in our line. We’re deep at both the tackle and end positions, so we should be able to rotate players every three to four snaps,” said Mahoney.

Koppen and Figueroa will return to the heart of the trenches, with 6-3, 270-pound junior Adrian Moscoffian, Kade Fritz, Ramos and 5-11, 245-pound senior Carlos Sauceda working into the internal mix.

Kale Fritz and senior Nic Vanasse will start at the end positions, with Tordsen and senior John Dosedel providing solid depth from the sideline.

“It looks like we’ve got several linebackers who will need to figure out how to get them on the field, while we’ve got great experience in the secondary,” said Mahoney.

Fausch and Waletich will patrol the inside linebacker spots for defensive coordinator Brad Johnson, while Ben Abel and senior Rodney Engstrom will handle the outside responsibilities. Jensen and Cunning will look to provide stellar minutes off of the sideline.

Monsen and Lytle will return to handle the cornerback duties in the red-and-white’s defensive secondary, with Nate Johnson and Erickson handling the safety spot.

From a special teams perspective, Mahoney will turn to the multi-tasking Chirpich for another season launching punts on the heels of averaging 35.1 yards per kick, while junior Jack Maakestad will handle kickoff and PAT duties.

After capturing runner-up accolades to Waseca during the last-ever South Central Conference football race in 2013, Fairmont will join former league rivals Waseca, Blue Earth Area, New Ulm, St. James and St. Peter in combining forces with the former Southwest Conference teams – Jackson County Central, Luverne, Marshall, Pipestone Area, Redwood Valley, Windom Area and Worthington – in forming the Big South Conference this fall.

“It’s only a one-year deal for football due to the high school league transitioning to district play in 2015, but I think the Big South will provide some great competition and help us great prepared for the sectional playoffs,” said Mahoney.

As far as defending the Section 3AAA championship is concerned, Mahoney anticipates a “wide-open race.”

“Taking a look around the section, I think every school graduated a horse or two,” Mahoney said. “I like our depth, but we have a number of guys who haven’t played much at the varsity level.

“It might take a while to find our identity as a team, but I also believe we have all the pieces to the puzzle. Now it’s our (coaching staff) job to put those pieces in the right place.”

Fairmont faces Pipestone Area in its home-opener on Sept. 5 at Mahoney Field.