Despite the graduation of quarterback and leader Ian Stone, the Rams are poised for another strong season.
There’s a lot to be said about building a program from the ground up — especially at a small private school.
It’s probably one of the toughest jobs in high-school sports, and it’s been a challenge that sixth year head coach Bill Gierke has taken on since he first arrived in 2012 at Orangewood Christian.
But unlike previous seasons, going into the new year there seems to a bit of momentum the program has not seen in a good while. Orangewood looks to follow up and continue the success experienced last season — which saw the Rams finish 8-3 and make an appearance in the Sunshine State semifinal game.
Although if you ask Gierke his thoughts on last season, he’d tell you that the past is simply that — the past.
“The positive part is that it is really, really positive for your school — things that students and the school enjoy because they don’t happen all the time, and when you can get that positive experience its something that can really carry you through the rest of the year,” Gierke said. “But I personally don’t worry about it no more — I just worry about the next game.”
Unlike last season, Gierke and his Rams will be without the playmaking abilities of quarterback and leader Ian Stone — who helped his squad throughout each game with some impressive stats.
Through 10 games, Stone threw for 712 yards on 41-for-80 passing, while tossing eight touchdowns to four picks.
Stone was even more dangerous on his feet. On 89 carries, he racked up a whopping 915 yards and 16 touchdowns. Overall, he accounted for 1,727 of the Rams’ total 3,546 yards, and 18 of the teams total 55 touchdowns.
“He was a tremendous player for us — he is playing at Jacksonville right now,” Gierke said. “Right now, we have three or four kids who are trying to win the quarterback job right now — I don’t know who is going to do that, I’m making them compete for the job.”
Along with the competition at the QB position, there are plenty of players to step up — more than there has been in the past.
This year, the Rams have about 50 kids on the roster, the most players that Gierke has had during his tenure at the school.
Among the new and old faces at Orangewood, the Rams will have some talent to lean on — starting with star running back Anthony Brown.
Brown, a junior, was the lead back for the Rams last year and a threat to break runs on just about every defense he faced. Through nine games last year, Brown hauled in 766 rushing yards on 74 carries for an average of 85 yards per game, while piling on 17 rushing touchdowns. Brown hit the century mark in yards in three out of those nine games, with his longest run being 75 yards.
“He is a very, very talented player — he’s about 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, and he can run and catch the ball,” Gierke said. “He is a Division I football player, and if you can get him past the line of scrimmage, he is going to gain a lot of yards.”
Joining Brown as offensive threats are senior tight end Kyle Bowman and senior running back Troy McPeak.
Bowman — who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 215 pounds — has been able to utilize his size to get open while also dropping back to offer QB protection. He is also an absolute workhorse, Gierke said.
“He is a beast,” Gierke said. “He never comes off the field, (and) he’s been like that for three years.”
Although he was limited to only 11 carries last year, McPeak made the most out of the time he was given — racking up 108 yards and a single rushing touchdown through seven games of work. McPeak also grabbed 33 yards on seven receptions.
And like most of the team, both Bowman and McPeak serve on the defensive side of the ball, which both excel at tremendously.
Last season at the OLB/DE positions, Bowman finished fourth on the team in total tackles with 49 — 43 of which were solo tackles. A little over half of his tackles (25) were tackles for loss.
McPeak spends his time defensively at the OLB position as well, where he picked up 22 total tackles (15 solo, seven assists), which includes five tackles for loss.
“He’s been starting for me for three years,” Gierke said. “He has had some — not major injuries — but some minor injuries that have curtailed some of his seasons, but if he stays healthy, he is a very quality player.”
Although there is a lot of talent in the skill positions — especially out wide — there’s one spot that Gierke worries about, and it’s a problem that many schools such as Orangewood face: size on the offensive line.
At public schools, finding beef up-front can be easier because of a larger pool of candidates.
Luckily for Gierke, he will have an anchor on the line in senior center Chris Bracker, whose big 6-foot-2, 275-pound frame will provide some relief for whoever takes over at the QB position.
Given these returning guys who will continue to lead, and the possibility of some fresh faces stepping up and taking over, there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the upcoming season for these players — who will look not only to win games, but also become one, cohesive unit.
“I tell them all every day: The goal is about family,” Gierke said. “It’s never about ‘me;’ it’s always about family. My goal is to try and give them the best chance to win every time they take the field.”
Check out our football preview HERE for more information on all five schools in the Winter Park and Maitland area.