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MUTKA: Valpo, St. Joe’s hit football recruiting jackpot

WichitState v IndianState

Wichita State v Indiana State

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Apparently defense is a foreign concept to high school football teams in Central Indiana. How else do you explain ridiculous scores like 83-78 and 43-35?

Quarterbacked by Conner Smith, Perry Meridian put up those winning numbers against Decatur Central and Terre Haute South last season. In those two games the Valparaiso University recruit threw 12 of his 39 touchdown passes.

Running a no-huddle offense, he clicked on 62.1 percent of his passes for 3,114 yards. What jumped out at me was that only eight of his 317 attempts were picked off.

Not exactly a gazelle, the 6-3, 220-pound recruit has been clocked in 4.6 for the 40. His confidence impressed Columbus North coach Tim Bless, who compared him to a certain Pittsburgh Steeler you may have heard of.

“He’s like Ben Roethlisberger back there ... big, but not that mobile,” Bless said. “He’s got that swagger about him.”

Finding a quarterback was critical for new VU coach Dave Cecchini since Eric Hoffman chose not to use his remaining year of eligibility. Who can blame him? Hoffman departs with school records of 7,221 yards (career) and 252 completions (single season), but experienced just three victories in three years.

“Eric is moving on, a decision he made before I was hired,” said Cecchini, who became VU’s 17th head football coach on Dec. 11. “With him graduating, quarterback became our No. 1 priority.

“Conner’s a big kid (6-3, 220), our first of 17 to commit. He’s a great leader.”

Cecchini didn’t stop there. His recruits include Dalton Stokes, who quarterbacked Vero Beach (Fla.) High School to a 10-2 record. In two years the 5-11 senior completed 65 percent of his passes for more than 5,000 yards and 49 touchdowns.

“Not as big as Conner, but he’s more on the athletic side,” Cecchini said. “Both of those guys are great competitors and we’re thrilled to have them on board.”

Far from finished, he welcomed a few more candidates over the weekend. With another 15 visits expected recruiting could continue until early March, which is the norm for non-scholarship football programs.

Meanwhile, Cecchini is taking advantage of social media to tweet and twitter interested fans and alumni about progress.

“It’s much better way to do it as opposed to a traditional press release,” he said. “It’s more conversational.”

Pumas harvest 29 gridders: Fifty miles southeast of the Porter County campus, St. Joseph’s coach Cory Sanders announced a recruiting class of 29 athletes to add to 70 returning players. Since the Pumas retain 20 of 22 starters from an 8-3 season the same sense of urgency might not prevail as at VU, but Sanders relies on nervous energy to amp up the intensity.

“We do return a lot, but I don’t think anyone in the league cares about that,” he scoffed. “With 70 coming back we’ll have more depth than we’ve ever had.”

Quarterback Bill VanderMerkt will be a missing piece of the puzzle, but was plagued by injuries, giving understudy Tate Borlik valuable experience. He embraced the opportunity, throwing for 646 yards and four touchdowns.

All-American wide receiver Julian Walker will be tougher to replace, having retired as St. Joseph’s No. 2 all-time catcher on the fly in touchdowns (23), receptions (231) and yardage (2,425). Hoping to extend his career, he strengthened his case with 11 catches for 120 yards in a Division II All-Star game at Myrtle Beach, S.C. in December.

“Hopefully some doors will open for him, but if not he’s already in graduate school,” said Sanders, who filled the void by signing speedy wide receivers Tremel Glasper out of Bishop Lynch in Lancaster, Texas and Wheylen Tolbert out of Daphne, Alabama.

He’s also enthused about Evan Gill, a 6-3, 215-pound lineman from Chesterton. Gill is one of 17 defensive recruits.

“Evan’s a lanky kid with a high motor,” Sanders said. “He’s a hard worker who fits in with what we do and how we operate here.”

He also signed Aaron Ellis, who quarterbacked Boone Grove to an 8-3 record. The 6-2 recruit, who missed one year after transferring from Valparaiso, passed for 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Being locked into the frigid midwest created numerous logistic problems, but the Pumas avoided recruiting frostbite.

“It hurt us a little bit,” Sanders admitted on a day when classes were cancelled at SJC. “We had to cancel visits and change schedules, but we worked our butts off to recruit the kind of players available to help the program on and off the field.”

Spring practice starts on April 3 for the Pumas, who open next season with a night game at Valparaiso on Sept. 6.Sanders is already champing at the bit.

“It’s a great rivalry game,” he said. “Our longest standing one. With their new coach (Cecchini) it’s an exciting time for them. I think there’s a lot of buzz and energy on their campus now.”

Hiding in ‘The Forest’: Quick quiz question: Name the basketball coach at Indiana State. Don’t know? Didn’t think so.

His name is Glen Lansing and you’ll be hearing more about him in years to come. He’s been stationed at the Terre Haute campus for 12 years, but never served as a college head coach before although he toiled as an assistant at Iowa for eight seasons.

In four years at “The Forest” in Hulman Center, the Sycamores have grown a 73-51 record behind Lansing. A 17-foot statue of Larry Bird guards the facility, where ISU has qualified for four straight post-season tournaments, including the NCAA in his first season.

Currently the Sycamores are 17-6 with two losses coming to unbeaten Wichita State and two more on one-point heartbreakers to Tulsa and St. Louis.

Indiana State scores by committee with five players averaging between 10 and 13 points, but Jake Odum makes them tick. Coming out of Terre Haute South, the wily point guard is the only Missouri Valley Conference player ever to reach 500 free throws (made) and 500 assists.

Odum and 6-9 Justin Gant, another homegrown product, along with key reserve Jake Kitchell from South Central High School, help create a statewide buzz in Vigo County.

After being redshirted in his freshman year, Kitchell bulked up to 247 pounds and has evolved into a part-time starter. The 6-10 junior delivers double-figure minutes and a strong presence on the defensive boards.



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