ALTON – The Prairie State Conference was Marquette Catholic’s playground after the Explorers were expelled from the South Central Conference.
Marquette was the PSC’s unbeaten champion in 2012 and again in 2013. Then Pawnee happened.
The Indians joined the league in 2014 and became back-to-back champs while racking up a 14-game winning streak in the PSC. “The incumbent,” Marquette coach Darrell Angleton said, “always, is the team to beat.”
The Explorers are coming off a 6-4 year that produced their ninth playoff appearance in 10 years. The offense must replace its two top playmakers in graduated quarterback Trey Aguirre and receiver Jesse Simmons.
Aguirre, a two-time All-PSC pick, passed for more than 2,600 yards threw 25 touchdowns passes the past two seasons. Senior Brady McAfee (6-1, 190), a rushing and receiving threat with more than 600 yards offense as a junior, moves in to fill the opening at QB.
“McAfee is a dual-threat guy,” Angleton said. “He can throw, he can run.”
Angleton envisions danger for defenses with McAfee operating out of an empty backfield on occasions. “You’re going to have to keep McAfee in the pocket and he’s got five targets running wild downfield,” the coach said.
Simmons was Aguirre’s favorite target last season, hooking up for 51 receptions for 701 yards and eight TDs. “When you really reach down, a kid like Jesse Simmons is tough to replace,” Angleton said. “He was a ball magnet.”
The Explorers return senior Brian Nagy (5-10, 160), who had 13 catches for 125 yards last season and is the No. 1 receiver. Junior John Blachford (6-0, 170) is the other wideout. In the slot will be Jeremy Strebel (5-10, 150, sr.) and Jayce Maag (5-9, 160, jr.). Maag also serves as backup QB.
When the offense reaches fourth down, it can turn to the conference’s best kicker and punter in senior Liam Maher, a first team All-PSC choice at both positions as a junior.
Another all-conference first teamer senior Marshall Youngblood leads an offensive line that returns four starters and two others that saw significant varsity action.
“Our offensive line is pretty veteran,” Angleton said. “These guys have a lot of experience and they know the system.”
The 6-5, 255-pound Youngblood is joined at tackle by junior Adam Strozewski (6-2, 270). Sam Stemm (5-9, 225, sr.) moves from center to guard opposite Konnor Morrissey (6-1, 225, sr.). Splitting time and running in plays at center will be Andrew Angleton (5-11, 195, jr.) and Andrew Dixon (5-10, 220, jr.). Tyler Menke (6-2, 210, sr.) is the tight end and Kyle Begnel (5-9, 172) is the fullback.
The rushing attack will be led by junior D’Avion Peebles (5-8, 160), who averaged 6.3 yards a carry while rushing for 570 yards and eight TDs as a sophomore. He is backed up by sophomore Treven Swingler (6-0, 170)
“People will be real surprised when they see Treven Swingler play a little running back this year,” Angleton said.
Marquette’s roster includes 12 seniors and 15 juniors and those numbers supply depth on the defensive front. “I’ve got a lot of guys that can play on the defensive line,” Angleton said.
Stemm, a first team All-PSC defensive end as a junior, “will anchor that line,” Angleton said.
Junior James Malone (5-10, 250) was a second team all-league selection and returns at tackle. “The kid’s just a gamer,” Angleton said. “He can cause havoc.”
Senior Alex Tesson (6-2, 280, sr.) is the nose guard, with Menke and Brandon Buhs (6-1, 220, jr.) getting work at defense end and Ralph Williams (6-3, 270, soph.) and Alex Roberts (6-0, 200, jr.) available for duty at tackle.
McAfee was a second team All-PSC linebacker, but will move to strong safety to lessen the physical toll as a two-way starter. Nagy, a first team All-PSC performer last season, returns at free safety. Strebel, Swingler and Blachford are the cornerbacks.
Xavior Jones (5-11, 175, sr.) was another second team All-PSC pick and he joins junior Will Hurst (5-11, 190) at outside linebacker, where sophomore Jack Parker (6-0, 180) also has impressed in preseason. Jake Reiter (5-9, 180, sr.), a transfer from Alton, will play at middle backer.
Marquette opens its season with tough nonconference dates against Civic Memorial and Breese Mater Dei before taking on a conference slate of mostly Class 1A-2A foes. A postseason berth would bump the Explorers back up in class.
“It’s always a challenge,” Angleton said of the playoffs that saw Marquette lose to Rochester 52-7 in a Class 4A first-round matchup. “Because of the multiplier, we are in the very bottom of 4A. … That’s a real problem for us. And that’s why our first two games are so tough.”