By Gary R. Rasberry
Success has been steady in the two years of the Mercer County Cougars.
The Interstate Football League team has gone 19-6 in its first two seasons, making at least the conference finals each season with a runner-up finish in the IFL title game the first season.
As is the case, though, changes have come to the team in the area of personnel. Several key Cougars from the last two seasons have hung up the pads as 25 games of full-contact football have taken a toll.
Receiver Craig Schwieterman has decided to retire this season after being the go-to pass catcher for the Cougars, as did defensive back Kevin Knapke. Also, linebacker Jason Wenning will miss the season after suffering a knee injury.
The veterans that return along with some potentially talented newcomers to the team, should keep the Cougars on the right track for a third straight successful campaign. Several of the newcomers are just out of high school over the last couple of seasons, something the veterans like to see for the future.
"We lost a couple of key players," said lineman Kevin Wehrkamp, who with Eric Schmitz handles the day-to-day operations of the Cougars. "But we've picked up Justin Kahlig, Greg Faller. I don't know how long everyone's going to be around."
"We should be competitive this year," said Schmitz. "Everyone knows how the program runs. We just show up and listen to everyone else."
Quarterback Adam Wenning, who injured his hand in the offseason but has made great strides in getting ready for the opener, returns to guide an offense that put up big numbers a year ago.
With Schwieterman gone, Wenning will look to a pair of newcomers to take over as the go-to pass catcher.
Justin Kahlig, a key two-way player for the Coldwater state championship team in 2005, keeps his playing days going as a receiver. Former Fort Recovery player Jon Kaup will also suit up, but will play just half a season before returning to school.
In the backfield, Chad Timmerman returns at running back after another big year. Chris Guggenbiller and Eli Grieshop both return to provide plenty of depth in the backfield along with Eric Schmitz.
On the O-line, Wehrkamp spearheads a very experienced group. Jon Homan, Versailles grad Dusty Johns, St. Henry grad Doug Everman and Coldwater alum Zach Sudhoff also return to anchor the trenches for the Cougars. There is additional depth this season on the line with the entry of Versailles grad Brad Yerick.
"We've got all the linemen back," said Wehrkamp. "We should be alright."
Kirk Link returns to line up at tight end with additional help will from Versailles grad Ben Wietholter and recent Fort Recovery grad Tyler Wuebker, who signed on late last week to play for the Cougars.
Defensively, Ron Kahlig will call the defensive plays from his linebacker spot alongside of Colin Bechtol and Aaron Guggenbiller. Fort Recovery grad Greg Faller joins the team this season to aid in the linebacker chores as well, along with the three veterans.
The defensive line will be manned by returnees Greg Schmitz, Dale Everman, Al Rinderle, Ryan Rosenbeck and Jeremy Link.
Defensive back/quarterback Eric Belcher will have a full plate this fall since he added the title of head coach at his alma mater Minster over the summer and has been working hard with both the Wildcats and the Cougars. Cody Overman and Eric Schmitz will key the defensive backfield along with Belcher.
"We got A-Dubs (Wenning) running the offense and Bull (Ron Kahlig) running the defense," said Schmitz. "Everyone listens to them."
Another Cougar returning is team founder Jose Faller, who was called to active duty in the U.S. Army last summer, but is expected to return after his tour of duty in Iraq next month and could suit up for the last part of the regular season.
"Good to have Jose back," said Wehrkamp. "Just to run the team again."
The Cougars will add a pair of teams to the schedule this season as the IFL expands to 10 teams. The Classic City Crush from Indiana and the St. Joseph County Thunder from Michigan joins the league this season.
"That's a little long for us," said Schmitz. "That's a possibility (with playoff games) of a 15-game season."
The Cougars open the 2006 IFL season at their home field of Barrenbrugge Park in Fort Recovery against the West Ohio Wranglers based out of St. Marys.
The Cougars won all three meetings against the Wranglers last season. The two regular season meetings were won by Mercer County by a combined score of 82-0 with the third win coming in the first round of the IFL playoffs by a 26-7 margin.
Home games will start at 5 p.m. with the exception of Aug. 5, due to a Coldwater picnic, and Sept. 23, when Johns gets married. Those two games will be moved up to a 3 p.m. start. Admission to all home contests is $3.