Goal Lines: Russellville realizes expectations are high following eight-win year

The Russellville Indians begin their fourth varsity season tonight with a road matchup against the Missouri Military Academy Colonels in Mexico. (Ken Barnes/News Tribune)

RUSSELLVILLE -- It didn’t take the Russellville Indians long to find success on the football field.

In just its third varsity season last fall, Russellville won its first seven games and finished with an eight-win season. That was a giant leap after posting a winless season in 2020.

“In some ways, I don’t know if we’ll really be able to judge that success until maybe this year, or years in the future,” Russellville coach Tim Rulo said. “But I know in the immediate, there’s such a better energy.

“Also, now there’s expectations. There’s an understanding and an expectation now that’s a little higher than before.”

Russellville also has 37 players on its roster, an increase of four from last season and a strong number for the Class 1 level.

Rulo said a roster of that size at that level not only bodes well for Friday nights, but also Monday nights for JV games.

“One of the biggest keys in looking at the health of a program is you want to see consistency in numbers or growth,” he said. “We’ve been happy with the growth, especially at the younger levels.

“At this point, you’re talking almost 25 freshmen and sophomores, and we’re really excited about that.”

Russellville graduated seven starters on offense and five starters on defense.

There will be plenty of new starters at the skill positions on offense.

Behind center, sophomore Justin Seaver takes over at quarterback.

Nolan Gartner, a senior, will be the starting fullback for the Indians. Seniors Drake Armes and Cayden Cook and junior Keaton Schrimpf will be running backs for a team that averaged 241 yards rushing per game a year ago.

Last season, five players had 20 or more rushing attempts for the Indians. Nine players recorded a rushing touchdown.

“Offensively, we just try to spread the ball out as much as possible,” Rulo said.

On the other hand, Russellville averaged less than six passing attempts per game in 2022.

“Honestly, this year, I think we’ll have even more ability to throw the ball,” Rulo said.

Lining up at wide receiver this season for the Indians are senior Payton Behrens and juniors Braedyn Bryant and Aiden Keeven. Behrens led Russellville with 176 yards receiving and three touchdowns last season.

Starting on the offensive line is junior Brayden Paull at center. On the left side are junior Garrett Holtgrewe at tackle and Ryan Brown at guard, while on the right side it will be junior Lydia Eickhorst at guard and sophomore Canaan Plate at tackle.

Paull and Brown anchor the line as returning starters.

“They’ve been playing a ton of football,” Rulo said.

With all non-seniors on the line, that group of five could start together for at least 20 games during the next two seasons.

“The more we can try to get our older players out and develop bigger roster numbers, the more you’re going to be successful,” Rulo said.

Other players who could see time on offense this season for the Indians are sophomore Jonathan Witt at running back or quarterback, while freshmen Corbin Johnson, Josh Fisher and David Wininger could see some time on the offensive line.

It will be a young offense leading Russellville’s wishbone formation, with only three senior starters, all at the skill positions.

“We’ve really challenged these guys,” Rulo said. “The plays that we’ve been asking them to execute all summer and into the preseason have been at a high level, and it’s probably harder and more challenging than some of the other plays we’ve done in the past.”

On defense, Russellville will utilize a four-man front this season.

“We have more lineman bodies this year,” Rulo said.

Starting on the line will be seniors Zane Sluyter and Jacob Fisher and junior Colten Koenigsfeld. The last spot on the line will be a rotation among Brown, Paull and Eickhorst, and Wininger could also see some time on the defensive line.

“We’re going to try to let some of these guys only play one way as much as we can,” Rulo said. “We know that’s a challenge at the Class 1 level, but it allows us to keep them a little more fresh.”

Returning at linebacker are Gartner and Schrimpf, who are the team’s top returning tacklers with 56 and 55 tackles, respectively, last season.

Cook will also be at linebacker, while Plate, Seaver, Johnson and sophomore Bryce Berendzen are all underclassmen who could see some time at that position.

In the defensive backfield, sophomore Jonathan Witt will play free safety, while Armes, Behrens, Keeven and freshman Matthew Carlton will play at cornerback.

“We have a nucleus of about 15, 17 kids,” Rulo said. “We want them to grow, we want them to keep getting better.”

Rulo said the defensive line has the potential to be a strength this season, but he has also been impressed with the leadership displayed by the senior linebackers.

“The growth I’ve seen from the beginning of the summer to now has been outstanding,” he said. “It’s been really fun to watch.”

On special teams, Cook will be both the kicker and the punter. He will be backed up by Sluyter.

Witt will be the long snapper, Brown is the short snapper and the holder will be either Seaver or Bryant.

The return game is more up in the air, but Behrens, Seaver, Armes and Witt are among the top candidates to bring back kickoffs and punts.

“They’re all doing a good job as well,” Rulo said.

Russellville opens its season tonight against Missouri Military Academy in Mexico. The Indians have defeated the Colonels in each of the past two years.

After going on the road in Week 2 to play Van-Far, Russellville will hold its home opener Sept. 8 against Diamond, the first of three consecutive home games.

“Those first couple of weeks will tell us a lot about how the season is going to go,” Rulo said. “Lord willing, we can continue to be successful.”

Homecoming is Oct. 6 against Polo and Senior Night is Oct. 20 against Crest Ridge. Both teams are new to Russellville’s schedule.

This will be the Indians’ last football season as an independent. In 2024, they will join a conference that will feature games against Fayette, Harrisburg, Linn, South Callaway and Tipton.

“Ultimately, conferences are great, especially if it’s a long-standing conference and has a ton of tradition,” Rulo said. “I’ve been able to experience that at some of the places I’ve been at. There are good rivalries that are developed there.”

Russellville’s schedule features only one team -- Crystal City -- that had a winning record last season. The Indians won last year’s matchup 38-36 against the Hornets.

The Indians are also hopeful to win the program’s first postseason game this fall.

“Winning breeds winning, success breeds success,” Rulo said. “That hard part is you don’t ever want to put so much pressure that the kids can feel and succumb to that. You have to get them excited, help them believe they are improving and getting better.

“That’s the thing we’ve been most excited about. The growth that we’ve seen throughout our time here has been really good.”