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Gaven Palko passed for 1,314 yards last season.

SMICKSBURG — The Marion Center Stingers would understand if they caught you by surprise in 2018.

They don’t plan to be quite so forgiving this time around.

After instilling a physical culture that had been lacking last year in his first season at the helm of his alma mater, second-year coach Adam Rising has hoisted the expectations for a team that was once a perennial also-ran in the Heritage Conference standings.

Now, following the program’s first run to the District 6 playoffs since 2011, Marion Center aims to climb atop the standings for years to come.

“Getting back to district playoffs was huge,” Rising said. “Our program hadn’t seen playoffs since 2011, so it was fun for our younger kids last year to be around that, to see that we had great senior leadership last year buying into a relatively new coaching staff and understanding the process it took us to get to the playoffs. Heck, we expect that. Our guys expect that we’re going to be a top contender in our conference this year. Our guys expect to play Week 11 in football.”

Summer was far from kind to the program after Marion Center graduated 13 seniors, but the Stingers return no shortage of experience, particularly at the positions that will touch the football on every play.

Leading rusher Garet Wells, a three-year letterwinner, takes over a full-time role in the backfield looking to top last year’s 1,028 yards in his final varsity season.

And players and coaches alike raved about the progress quarterback Gaven Palko has made throughout camp, a scary proposition for opposing defenses after the 6-foot junior threw for 1,314 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first season as a starter.

“He’s been working a lot on strength and accuracy,” tight end and defensive end Jonah Vaglia said. “He’s really stepped up. He’s dangerous. He’s able to find his receivers and hit them wherever they are on the field.”

Also filling in at playmaker positions, Keegan Whitfield will rotate between wing and fullback in Marion Center’s Wing-T offensive scheme, while sophomore Brady Tonkin and Xavier Vaglia will mix and match in his stead. Split out wide, junior Justin Peterson and sophomore T.J. Lynn give Palko a pair of young receivers to grow with, but the Stingers’ top asset in the passing game could also be one of their more experiences blockers.

Jonah Vaglia, a 6-foot-5, 190-pound senior, shifts to tight end after protecting the edge as Marion Center’s left tackle last season. His role won’t change completely, but he can certainly present a sizeable mismatch anytime he is running in the open field.

“Obviously I had to learn a whole different play set with pass routes and everything,” Vaglia said. “Coach still has me blocking a lot, but he wants to get me out in the flat and anywhere that Gaven can find me on the field.”

The offensive line is the position group hurt most by graduation, with just one starter returning to the front five in senior guard Clayton Coble.

Senior right tackle Gabe McClellan brings by far the most size to the trenches at 6-1, 310, while junior wrestling standout Marvin Beatty (6-5, 265) brings depth to the program.

A pair of juniors, tackle Gavin Effinger and guard Billy Gaston, and senior center Hunter Lydic round out the rest of the line.

Though potentially lacking bulk and experience, the Stingers believe they can make up for their shortcomings with a more fleet-of-foot roster than Marion Center has carried in quite some time.

“We’re on track right now as a team, where we should be, but there’s obviously a lot of room for improvement,” Rising said. “These kids that are going to be on the field Friday nights have a lot of experience playing football. A lot of them had some key roles last year. The guys that we have coming back up front … we’re not gigantic by any means, but we’re strong, fast and athletic.”

Much like Palko’s leap forward on offense, Coble was the talk of camp on the other side as the quarterback of the defense at middle linebacker.

Not only tasked with assuming a leadership role in his fourth varsity season, the 6-foot, 192-pounder could be expected to lead the Stingers on the stat sheet as well.

“He’s strong, he’s lightning-fast, and more importantly, he has a nose for the football,” Rising said. “I really expect Clayton to have a phenomenal year, especially with some nice size up front, if we can keep him free.”

“I’m proud to be the leader of the defense, but it takes the whole team to play as a defense,” Coble said.

“It can’t be just one person. If the line gets driven back, then the linebackers can’t flow and make the tackle.”

McClellan and Beatty will be the staples of the defensive line at tackle while Destin Fisher bookends Jonah Vaglia, though Gaston, Landon Bennett and Xavier Vaglia will mix in at the position. Outside of Coble, the linebacker group includes Whitfield, Wells, Lydic and Mike Wise.

The secondary will be the most youth-laden group with Peterson, Tonkin, Lynn, Mock, Zach Lutz and Ty Ryen all getting work.

Hoping to solidify Marion Center’s special teams, senior Jocilyn Thompson suits up for her first varsity season as kicker, a job she will hold on the side of her varsity volleyball career.

“When she expressed interest in kicking a football, we said absolutely,” Rising said. “If you can stand in there and bang out extra points and they’re guaranteed, that’s a huge part of the game. She’s worked really hard. We’re excited to have her.”

Marion Center enters the season far from a finished product, but a team on the rise, it appears poised to take another step.

And now in Year 2 of Rising’s system, the Stingers believe it won’t take long before they do.

“Moving into this year, we’re a lot more experienced,” Whitfield said. “We’re more comfortable with (Rising) as a head coach. And we’re still a young team, but we’ve made a lot of progress. I’m excited to see how it’s going to go.”