University of Saint Mary football team works to build a strong foundation for the future of program

Jason Brown
The Leavenworth Times
Shown are members of the University of Saint Mary football team gathering toward the end of practice

University of Saint Mary football returns to competition in one week and the Spires are fresh off a solid, mostly uninterrupted offseason and ready to continue building on a new foundation for the program. 

The Spires have gone 0-15 over the past two seasons and will be looking for their first win since 2018 this season. In the pandemic shortened season, the Spires were deeply affected by COVID-19 and were forced to spend nearly an entire month in various quarantines to start the season. 

Head coach Lance Hinson said losing that time during the season in addition to all of the normal activities that were nixed during the 2020 offseason -  including spring football and various camps - was devastating for a program that is working to instill a new culture from top to bottom.

"We had a really good spring," Hinson said. "Got the guys teaching them our culture in the weight room and build on the culture with this group of 60 some odd returners. So that way whenever they met the 58 new guys that we brought in, we would have at least a foundation to build on. I'm very very pleased with this team."

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The defense will be headlined by fifth-year safety Nick Holmes – out of Pleasant Ridge High School – who graduated in the spring but elected to start graduate school and get one last year on the field for Saint Mary. Holmes was joined by at least 10 other Spires in utilizing their extra year of eligibility from the pandemic.

"They want to be leaders of this program," Hinson said. "I attribute a lot of that to our coaches building that relationship with our guys. From what they saw of what we're building from that short little season last year, they didn't want to finish that way, they wanted to come back and give their best effort for their last year of eligibility."

Hinson said having those returners come back when they didn't have to is a huge bonus for a program that needs to develop a lot of young talent.

On offense, the Spires are looking at either junior Jalil Grimes or freshman Caden Stone, who transferred from Peru State, to start at quarterback. Hinson said the Spires will likely operate out of one and two-back formations the majority of the time. 

Junior Cole Nequette projects to lead the backfield after getting the majority of the work in the shortened 2020 season. He will be joined by freshmen Raymond Webster and Jartavious Martin. Hinson said the freshmen have looked electric so far and he is expecting the backfield to be one of the team's strongest positions. 

That doesn't mean the Spires won't be throwing the ball with a handful of experienced route runners ready to go in junior Bryan Gudka and sophomore Domingo Dahn. 

"He's Mr. Everything to us," Hinson said of Gudka. "He's our emergency third, fourth quarterback, you know, playing slot receiver for us. He's just a gritty, tough football player. I use him on special teams too. He's just a football player, you don't give guys like him one position."

Despite the returning talent at the skills positions, Hinson conceded that much of his offense's success will depend on how things go up front.

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"It all starts up front," he said. "We need to maintain our health up front because we really like our offensive line where it is right now. If we stay healthy up there we will be a very efficient offense."

The Spires will be on the road for their first two games of the season with the opening game against Sterling College Sept. 4. Saint Mary will then have its bye week before traveling to No. 25 Southwestern College Sept. 18. The home opener is scheduled for Sept. 25 against Friends University at Charles J. Berkel Stadium. 

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