MESKWAKI SETTLEMENT - The injuries that saddled the Meskwaki Settlement football squad last fall left the Warriors to slog through a 3-6 season they'd just as soon forget.
But the experience Meskwaki's reserve players gained as underclassmen may eventually pay dividends.
The Warriors are hoping that time is now, even though the numbers game continues to plague them.
First-year head coach Ken Mauskemo had just 13 players in camp during the first week of fall practice, but the Warriors have done more with less in the 8-man game. Still, going at it with a healthy bunch would be fine by this former assistant.
"A lot of guys played pretty close to the whole game last year because of injuries and our numbers," said Mauskemo, who previously served as an assistant on former head coach Todd Dale's staff. "We need to stay healthy and get a few more guys out for the team.
"I think we can (make the playoffs). When everybody's healthy I think we could make a good run."
The last remaining members of the inaugural Meskwaki football unit have now graduated as the program prepares for its fifth season on the gridiron. The Warriors have one playoff appearance (2010) in tow, but still plenty of ground to cover to turn last year's team into a playoff hopeful.
Last year's 3-6 campaign saw the Warriors struggle mightily on defense, which is a relative term in the 8-man game. But Meskwaki surrendered 53.9 points per game, which ranked 59th out of 66 teams in all of 8-man football.
A glaring weakness, as Mauskemo can attest, was stopping the run. The Warriors simply did not have the size to resist its opponents, who gobbled up an average of 267.3 rushing yards per game and 378.3 yards of total offense. And the transfer of the team's largest player - Damon Whitebreast (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) - to South Tama certainly won't help.
But because of injuries, three underclassmen gained starting experience a year ago, and they're all back to man the trenches for Meskwaki this season. Junior Darrion Murray and sophomores Wade Brown and Francisco Lasley-Santos are expected to see most of the snaps up front on both sides of the ball. Junior Eammon Tahahwah and sophomore Wade Brown will be looked upon to make an impact up front, too.
"The offensive and defensive linemen have been through the whole year last year, and now they're a year older," said Mauskemo. "Eammon was out most of last season with a broken collarbone, and he's another body who we needed all season. He played on our line too, he's versatile."
The injury bug bit hardest, however, in the Warriors' offensive backfield. Starting quarterback Tyus Grant only played in six of nine games last season, but his younger brother took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves. Then-freshman Terrell Grant turned into Meskwaki's playmaker, a role that should enhance itself with the return of the now-senior Tyus to primary quarterbacking duties.
"Terrell was a do-everything guy back there last year, he played quarterback, running back, did kick and punt returns," Mauskemo said. "Tyus is healthy and looking pretty good this year, and he's been running the offense as our quarterback."
Tyus Grant threw for 382 yards at a 46 percent completion rate last season, going 23-for-50 for six touchdowns and only one interception. Terrell Grant finished 54-for-117 (46.2 percent) for 541 yards with six touchdowns but 11 interceptions. Royce Timberwolf, now a junior, also saw time at QB last fall but threw five interceptions on 24 pass attempts.
Being able to leave Timberwolf out at wide receiver, where he hauled in 12 passes for 229 yards and three TDs, will benefit the Warrior offense wholly. Timberwolf ranks second among receivers returning in 8-man District 5, while Terrell Grant (516 rushing yards) is the second-leading returning rusher in the district.
Terrell Grant proved most valuable in the return game last season, as the fleet-footed freshman took back a state-best seven kickoffs for touchdowns. He's also Meskwaki's top tackler from a year ago (66 tackles). The Warriors bring back four of their five leading tacklers overall, and they'll need the experience.
Seven of the eight teams in District 5 return their starting quarterback, including league champion HLV of Victor. Last year's district runner-up, Melcher-Dallas, is the only squad that graduated its signal caller. IowaPreps.com ranks HLV seventh and Wayne of Corydon 10th in its preseason poll.
Meskwaki had a district-low nine takeaways on defense last season, so forcing turnovers may be paramount to turning around the team's defensive woes. That and possessing the ball more - or doing more with it when they've got it - will be just as key. The Warriors committed 28 turnovers on offense, yet they still scored an average of 28.9 points per game.
Meskwaki Settlement will serve as host in three of the first four weeks this season, starting with the Wayne Falcons in their opener last Friday. Following a road trip to face non-district foe Springville, the Warriors return home to entertain HLV and Twin Cedars. Four of Meskwaki's final five games are on the road.