By JOSH SIGLER
---- — As Mark Lefebvre developed into one of the premier small-school football coaches in Indiana over the past 20 years, the thought of coaching at his alma mater — North Miami — always intrigued him.
The timing never seemed to work itself out favorably enough to make that happen. At least until now.
After two stints at Southern Wells, sandwiched by a stop at Maconaquah, Lefebvre will return to Denver to lead the Warriors' gridiron program, where he cut his teeth as an assistant coach while working his way through college from 1985 to 1991.
“It’s really exciting to be back here and back in a program that I was fortunate enough to coach in during the late '80s and early '90s," Lefebvre said. "That was a pretty fun time in North Miami football. To have an opportunity to come back here and make it a place where you get to put your stamp on it is pretty special. ... This seems like it's meant to be.”
Lefebvre returns to North Miami after developing quite the resume. After completing his student teaching at Southern Wells in 1992, he accepted the head coaching job in 1993, and led the Raiders to a 22-19 record in four seasons.
He returned to Miami County in 1997 to coach at Maconaquah, leading the Braves to a 9-13 record in two seasons. His 1998 squad went 6-6 and fell in the sectional championship round.
Southern Wells came calling once again, and he returned to Poneto to lead the Raiders, where he won three sectional and three regional titles. His 2001 squad went 14-1 and won a Class A state championship.
Lefebvre inherits a Warriors program that has a proud history, as well. The Warriors boast four sectional titles since the IHSAA went to five classes in 1985. The 1993 squad claimed a Class A state title, and the program is coming off of a sectional crown in 2012.
Eleven seniors are gone from that team, including its top two rushers in quarterback Austin Barker and tailback Brady Briggs, as well as its top two receivers in wideouts Daniel Musselman and Assa Deardorf.
The current roster features athletes who will be new to the varsity level, and that's something Lefebvre isn't necessarily biting his fingernails over.
"In some respects, we're so different offensively [than the previous coaching staff] that them having less experience is allowing them to transition into what we do a little quicker," he said. "Things went fairly well through our first few days of camp [last week], so we're pretty encouraged. But, there's going to be growing pains."
The previous coaching staff ran a spread offense out of the shotgun. Lefebvre will transition the Warriors into a more traditional triple option look, much like the ones seen in use by the service academies of college football.
Junior quarterback Jake White has worked with the first offense during summer drills. Multiple running backs may see significant workloads once the season starts, including seniors Damon Gipson, Keith Rouch and Todd Pocock.
Defensively, the Warriors of new won't look all that different. Lefebvre prefers a 3-4 or 5-2 look out of the front seven, something returners were used to lining up in under former coach Greg Miller, who left North Miami after last season to take the head coaching job at Manchester High School.
"With all the spread offenses you see today, you have to be flexible and be able to adjust to things," Lefebvre said. "There are some subtle differences and changes in terminology, but our defense won't be a wholesale philosophical change."
The Braves return their starting quarterback, leading rusher and leading receiver. Add that to a veteran offensive line that features four returning starters, and the crew in Bunker Hill feels like it can right the ship and return to the sunny side of .500 for the first time since 2004.
Quarterback Kyle Dinn is back after throwing for 989 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions as a junior. His favorite target, senior K.J. Walton, is back after hauling in 19 grabs for 259 yards and a TD. Junior Cody Hicks ran for 892 yards and seven TDs last season as a sophomore, while tackle Ben Stephenson and guard Stuart Walsh return as three-year starters on the offensive line. Guard Nick Ingram and center Caleb Hunt are both two-year starters in the trenches, while tackle Matt Smith moves to offense after two years as a starting defensive tackle.
"We feel really good about the young men that we do have back," coach Mark Hartman said. "We're only replacing two on offense and three on defense. We've played young for the last several years, and that valuable game experience has come to the forefront now because these kids are experienced veterans. We feel like things are much smoother as a result. A lot of the teaching is out of the way because we have kids who have been in those spots."
Maconaquah is unable to hold the traditional two-a-day preseason practices due to their year-round academic schedule. That obstacle puts an even stronger emphasis on the squad's summer program. They meet three times a week and play in seven-on-seven games and 11-on-11 scenarios against other programs as much as possible.
"I think we're hitting on all cylinders as far as that goes. But when everyone else is in two-a-days, we're in school and just practicing afterward," Hartman said. "So I think it's good in the fact that we get in a routine a lot earlier than a lot of people, but we don't have as much field time, so it's give and take. Once we get to the end of the season, we have two weeks completely off for fall break, so heading into the second season, tournament time, we always have more preparation time."
The Braves haven't won a postseason game since 2002, and in order to do that, Hartman has put an increased focus on improving defensively. Maconaquah gave up more than 32 points per game and more than 3,000 total yards last season.
"We feel skill-wise and with our offensive line, we're right on track where we need to be offensively," Hartman said. "The kids are coming up through the system now and have a better understanding. But at the end of the day, you still have to make blocks and you still have to make tackles in order to win football games. That's something we've been lacking, so we put a very big emphasis on defense this summer. We made some changes as far as what we've done before. So we're going to start fresh and do some things differently."
Now in the third season of his second stint, coach Bob Prescott saw significant improvement in between years one and two, as the Bengal Tigers went from 0-10 to 3-7.
But with that improvement comes the losses to graduation for Peru, including the team's leading rusher (Kaleb Hammersley), leading receiver (Shane Swinford) and starting quarterback (Tarran Townsend). Finding replacements for that trio has been at the forefront of summer workouts.
"Our main focus is just to continue to try to get better every day," Prescott said. "Not only as a player, but as a person as well. So, we want to develop our kids in the weight room to develop strength. We also want to develop mental toughness. But just as importantly as anything else, we want to develop some character."
Even with the loss of Hammersley, Swinford and Townsend, Prescott says he still possesses a core group of guys who understand expectations well. Those leaders are allowing the team as a whole to grow closer and bond as a team.
"We have a lot of kids we're rotating through right now, just trying to keep an eye on all of them," Prescott said. "We lift and run three days a week, and then we go out and do some skill development, some individual work with them. We're just about to finish up our seven-on-seven league up in Rochester, as well."
Numerous players have looked strong during summer functions, with Prescott preferring to focus on his seniors. Fullback/linebacker Steven McBride, runningback/linebackers Larry Nice and Eddie Childers, tight end Eli Brubaker, running back Kegan Kern, center Nick Cress and defensive back Zach Holler have all caught Prescott's attention as bright sports during different times this summer.
Junior Nolan Brimbury appears to have the inside track on the quarterback position.
"We'll try multiple formations as we get closer to August 5," Prescott said. "We're going to try to see what our best personnel strengths are and go from there. The most important thing for us is to continue to show up and be committed and continue to work on our conditioning levels so that when we get to the point where we have to start practice, the majority of our team is in shape. We can focus on teaching, skill development and fundamentals and team concepts, and not have to worry about running or kids being tired and not able to focus because they're out of shape."