When Jason Thurston accepted the head coaching job at Fairfield a year ago, he did so without a guarantee that the Knights would actually field a varsity team.
Thurston was hired about six weeks before training camp began and found out a few weeks later that he would have a team to coach.
That made for a somewhat unusual season.
“Some of the coaches that coached under (former) coach (Darwin) Seiler kept things going with the offseason program after he stepped down,” Thurston said. “When I came in, my staff and I had to earn the kids’ trust. It was a process, and over time, the kids started buying into it.”
The Knights went 2-8 last season and finished the year with a 37-6 loss to Halifax in the District 3 Class A championship game. Their victories came over James Buchanan (31-23) and York Tech (47-16).
Thurston plans to run a hybrid Wing-T offense and will have to replace quarterback Zach Koons, who was a senior last season. Koons threw for 654 yards and six touchdowns.
Sophomore Jake Myers served as Koons’ backup and he threw passes in three games last year, going 3-of-8 for 27 yards. Myers also was the team’s placekicker and made all three of his field goal attempts to go with 16 made extra points.
“Jake is very athletic and a different quarterback than Zach was. Given that he was the backup last year, he probably has a leg up on being the starter this year,” Thurston said. “That’s not guaranteed, though.”
In the backfield, leading rusher Joey Quealy (372 yards, 3 TDs) graduated, but the team projects to have depth returning. Senior Garrett Stadler (274 yards, 4 TDs) and sophomore Peyton Stadler (178 yards, 1 TD) both return.
“Garrett and Peyton are both extremely hard-working young men and I’m excited to see what they can do this season,” Thurston said. “Hopefully we can open some holes upfront for them to run through and we can get them running downhill.”
Thurston also cited sophomores Cody Valentine and Holden Gibson as potential ball carriers.
Garrett Stadler is the leading returning pass catcher with 11 receptions for 210 yards and one score, while tight end Brent Hamilton, a senior, hauled in six passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. Leading receiver Nic Wheeler (19 catches, 186 yards) graduated.
In addition to Hamilton returning at tight end, the offensive line has three returnees in junior guard Jared Estes, junior tackle Nathan Roberts and sophomore center Koty Mongan. Thurston also mentioned sophomore guard Will Myers as a player who saw time last season and could become a starter this year.
“We’re a little small on the offensive line, but we do have some experience returning,” Thurston said. “We have some depth there, as well.”
The defensive formation a year ago was a 4-2-5, but that will change to a multiple 4-3 this season. Thurston expects it to be anchored by the Stadler brothers from their linebacker positions. Garrett recorded a team-high 97 tackles while playing safety, but the formation change means that he will now slide up a level. Peyton notched 65 tackles as a freshman.
Valentine and Will Myers are also in the mix to start at linebacker.
On the defensive line, Estes (14 tackles) and Mongan (15 tackles) are both expected to start at defensive tackle, while Roberts (18 tackles) is listed at defensive end.
The defensive backfield returns senior Elijah Jarosz (47 tackles, 2 INTs), Hamilton (36 tackles) and Jake Myers (22 tackles, 3 INTs) with Gibson potentially grabbing a starting spot, too.
As has been an issue for past Fairfield teams, the Knights don’t have a lot of players. That can present a depth problem and makes it difficult to absorb any injuries.
“Our numbers are lower than we’d like them to be,” Thurston said. “The kids that have been showing up this summer have worked really hard and we were able to go to a lot of 7-on-7’s and get our work in.”
The Knights’ offense averaged 15 points per game and 177 yards per game, they topped 20 points in four games last season. On defense, they allowed 35 points per game and four times they gave up more than 40 points.
An area that Thurston spoke well of was leadership from his veterans.
“I’m really impressed with the senior leadership that we have this season. Those guys have really stepped up,” he said. “We had a good group of seniors last year, too. But I’ve obviously had more time with this year’s seniors and it’s been great to see them evolve and grow.”
Fairfield has qualified for the district final in each of the last two seasons, but has lost the game both seasons by a combined 57 points. There are only three schools in Class 1A in District 3. So while it’s not overly hard to qualify for the game, Thurston would like to see the team be more competitive should it get there.
“That’s definitely a goal for us. We want to get back to the district final and make it a tight game,” he said. “We want to be in better physical shape and try to improve on last year’s record. We want to continue to make it a positive experience for the kids and to finish closer to the middle of our division.”
Follow Tom Sixeas on Twitter at @TomSixeas