WARSAW — If first-year Warsaw head football coach Bart Curtis had stayed put, he could have coasted out the remainder of his Hall of Fame coaching career, and no one could have blamed him.
That’s not really his style, though, and the former Mishawka skipper, who won five sectionals and one semi-state title in a decade at the helm of the Cavemen, wanted a new challenge. Trying to mold Tigers football — which has never won so much as a sectional championship — into an elite program represents a pretty big one. So he made a bold move.
“I could have probably rode off into the sunset and not be bothered by anybody for the next 10 to 12 years and have nobody question me, but you know what? That’s not my style. I like a challenge,” said Curtis, who is 201-102 over 27 seasons of head coaching experience. “Obviously the chance to coach with my son (Warsaw assistant coach Michael Curtis) was big, and the fact that a lot of people believe that this program can’t be elevated to elite status in 6A. That right there is enough to challenge me and pique my interest. I love it when people say something can’t be done.”
Curtis’ isn’t the only new face for the Tigers, who have a largely inexperienced, if not entirely young, varsity roster in 2018.
Senior Josh West will make his debut at quarterback this season, replacing Tristan Larsh under center. Junior Wyatt Amiss, senior Kane Dawson and junior Blake Marsh will likely split time at halfback, sophomore Mason Martz, junior Keagan Larsh and sophomore Luke Adamiec will line up at split end, and juniors Brock Hueber, Jacob Desenberg, Griffin Reed and Austin Meads will give the Tigers a push up front on the offensive line.
On the other side of the ball, seniors D’Anthony Hill and Cole Davis will compete for the starting spot at defensive end, senior Ian Glogovsky shows promise at linebacker, and Marsh and senior Eli Owen will go to work at the corner back spots, with Adamiec at safety. Jon Mical Garcia and Cobe VanHouten lend their talents to the D line, meanwhile.
Possibly the most experienced player on the roster is Bryce Garner, who returns to man the fullback position after racking up 368 rushing yards playing in all of Warsaw’s 11 games as a junior last year. Senior defensive end Jaxon Wagoner returns after starting at his position in 2017, as do senior offensive tackle Matthew Shoemaker, senior linebackers Logan Johnson and John Culbertson, senior safety Trenton Sands and junior kicker/ punter Harrison Mevis.
“It’s a young group in some regards, but in other regards they’re coming,” said Curtis.
“These kids are great kids to coach. They’re a lot of fun. They care an awful lot, and they’ve invested an awful lot. No matter whom they’re playing, I don’t think they’re going to go down easy. I think they’re going to scrap because they’ve invested so much throughout the summer.”
Warsaw has finished a notch above .500 at 6-5 each of the past two seasons under the program’s all-time winningest coach Phil Jensen, who announced his retirement back in December after 18 seasons over two stints with Warsaw football. The Tigers have finished in the middle of the pack in the Northern Lakes Conference standings each of those two years, with 4-3 records in the league in both campaigns.
As Curtis attempts to change the expectations for the program, he’s focusing on fundamentals and effort. And, of course, preparation is everything.
“Offensive philosophy and defensive philosophy, those are way overrated. Those have little to nothing to do with what happens on Fridays,” he said. “I’m more involved with what the process is throughout the course of the school year, what we’re going to look like in practice and how we’re going to prepare ourselves to be as good as we can be. I think that people will come up and say ‘Hey, this team plays awfully hard. They never take plays off. They run to the ball awfully hard on defensive and they tackle well, and offensively they don’t make a whole lot of mistakes.’ If they say those things, then you’re heading in the right direction.”
As with all new head coaching gigs, there are bound to be some bumps along the way as players adapt to new terminology, new plays and new practice drills. One area Curtis hopes to see improvement in is sustained pace at practice.
“Here’s what we’re not doing a very good job at right now — sustaining tempo in practice. We don’t transition well from drill to drill, and it takes us too long to start things and get them rolling,” he said. “Those are things that are weaknesses right now that we need to improve on.”
Warsaw opens at Columbia City on Friday, a team the Tigers have gotten the better of each of the past three season. After that comes a tougher test opposite East Noble in the team’s home-opener Aug. 24, and then they’ll jump into conference play on the road at Plymouth Aug. 31, a tough NLC slate that doesn’t let up and includes match-ups at Northridge Sept. 14, at NorthWood Week 8 and the Tigers’ regular season-closer with Concord at home in Week 9. Curtis hasn’t highlighted any of those games, however. He got to where he is focusing on the process, and he remains committed to that day-to-day approach.
“I have today circled because each day at practice is the most important day. Games are kind of like tests to see if what you’re doing throughout the week is preparing you for what you’re doing on Friday,” he said. “I’m far more concerned with our preparation on Sunday night as a staff and then how we prepare our kids Monday through Thursday. So today was circled, and I’ll cross it off, and now tomorrow is circled.”