Morton football program returns to form

Bryan Veginski
Morton junior Blake Miller, No. 6, rushed for 6.9 yards per carry and two touchdowns for the football team. In 2011, the Potters will seek back-to-back playoff appearances after earning a Class 5A bid this season

The Morton football team experienced a renaissance year.

After consecutive losing seasons, the Potters returned to the postseason field in 2010 while compiling a 7-3 mark.

“I think we had a really good season,” first-year MHS head coach Jason Thiry said. “It was a program-builder for sure.”

Morton went 5-2 in the Mid-Illini Conference, sharing second place with fellow playoff teams Dunlap and Washington. It was the Potters’ highest league finish since ’06.

Thiry said Morton possessed players who wanted to work hard, a dedicated coaching staff and community support.

“The crowds for every game this year were awesome,” said Thiry.

Those ingredients helped Morton go from 3-6 a year ago to nearly advancing in the Class 5A playoffs before losing in a back-and-forth first-round contest against Sterling, 28-21.

The Potters entered the postseason with wins in five of their last six games, but the players’ effort was consistent throughout the season.

“Every game the guys came out and played hard. They never took a week off in practice,” Thiry said. “They did everything we asked them to do and learned a lot of life lessons.”

All of the victories were highlights, Thiry said.

One that likely stood out for many observers was the 23-12 win Oct. 1 at defending M-I champion Washington.

Morton ended a four-game losing streak to the Panthers by outscoring them 23-0 in the second half. The Potters used a hurry-up running attack to overpower the home team.

Morton was in every game it played against top-tier foes and jumped on struggling opponents early.

“We played every team tough,” Thiry said. “I guess that’s what I’m most proud of.”

DJ Zahn delivered a prolific senior season.

He amassed 1,363 yards on the ground, averaging 8.6 per carry, and scored 20 touchdowns, all team-high figures.

Defensively, he was second on the squad with 55 tackles and made two interceptions.

“He was a team player,” Thiry said of the tri-captain. “There are a lot of options for him. That’s a lesson for the younger kids to watch — if you live right on and off the field, good things are going to happen.”

Tristan Popadziuk, also a senior, was second on the team with 608 rushing yards, an average of 76 per game he played. He crossed the goal line five times, including once on a reception.

Juniors Fernandez Bjork and Blake Miller combined for 485 yards on the ground and seven TDs.

Popadziuk led Morton with six catches, while senior Dalton White’s 133 receiving yards were the most.

Senior Brent Rassi added 99 yards and a team-best two receiving TDs.

Sophomore quarterback David Rossi finished with four TDs and five interceptions while going 31-of-75 for 478 yards.

Connor Kindred, a sophomore was 32-of-37 on extra-point kicks and converted three field goals.

Junior Kyle Hoefft topped a Potter defense that gave up just 16.7 points per game, the best in the conference, with 74 tackles.

Jed Lacy (51 tackles) was third, followed by Brennen Williams (48) and Austin Walschaert (42). All are seniors.

Walschaert had an astounding 12 tackles for loss, generating 46 yards.

Junior Matt Hungate (9-38) and Hoefft (8-31) also regularly sent the opponent backward.

Hungate recorded two sacks, while Walschaert, Hoefft, Lacy and senior Rand Stringer all had at least one takedown of the QB behind the line of scrimmage.

The Morton was just as aggressive against the pass with 16 interceptions.

White supplied five picks, while Williams and senior Joe Pflederer chipped in two apiece.

Looking ahead to ’11, Thiry wants to build numbers at the lower levels, maintain the players in the program and add athletes who can help that are not currently involved in football.

Time in the weight room and playing another sport also are major priorities.

“There’s no substitute for competing,” said Thiry.

The coach likes the potential of the current 23-member junior class and is looking for some of them to emerge as leaders for next year.

Morton returned to the forefront. Now, the challenge is to build upon a turnaround season that was filled with memorable moments.