In his first year as head coach, Mike Tracey helped transform a struggling Moline football program into a conference contender that reinvigorated its fanbase during a run to the playoffs. In his second season at the helm, the veteran coach is practically starting all over.
Just a couple starters return from last season’s 5-5 team that lost to eventual state champion Glenbard West in the first round of the Class 7A playoffs. With so many spots to fill with inexperienced players, Tracey doesn’t know what to expect from this year’s squad.
Though there are question marks all over the field, Tracey has seen a work ethic in his players that could help them to pick up where last year’s team left off if they can put it all together.
“It’s all new,” Tracey said. “The seniors on this year’s team aren’t as confident as they need to be. They’ll get there, but they’re not there yet."
Last year’s team was slow to develop under a new coach, starting 1-3 before its run game ignited during a 4-1 finish to the regular season that included wins over Rock Island and Quincy. It was the Maroons’ first winning regular season since 2012 and followed two seasons in which the squad won three games total.
While this year’s group may not have the experience, the players feel they bring back camaraderie that Tracey has helped instill.
“We trust in each other and have that brotherly love,” said senior cornerback Marcellous Johnson. “What (Tracey) likes to make us focus on is, instead of him yelling, he wants us to help each other and make sure we’re coming together and bonding as a team. That’s what he established.”
Johnson and linebacker Ladji Diallo are the only two returning starters on defense. On offense, the squad lost its top four rushers, three of whom ran for 550-plus yards.
Last year, the squad’s top rushers were big, bruising runners who pounded the ball behind a strong line. This year, the Maroons will sport a different look with its backs.
“We believe that we have a lot of talent and we have the speed,” said Diallo, who is the top returning back after tallying 123 yards on 24 carries in 2015. “Last year, we had bigger guys who brought power, and this year we feel like we’ve got the speed to go with the power.”
At quarterback, Brock Bertelli (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) is the most experienced but will get competition from junior Eric Maffie (6-1, 165) and senior Prince Saye (5-8, 160). Maffie suffered a foot injury in the summer but Tracey expects him available for Week 1 against a DeKalb team that went 9-3 last year.
It was on defense where the Maroons were most consistent last year. They held league foes to 15.8 points per game and posted a shutout against Normal University in Week 9 to become playoff eligible.
Despite having few returning starters, Johnson says the incoming talent is strong and should be able to step in without missing much of a beat.
“We had a lot of seniors who were really good last year,” Johnson said. “(The current seniors) were just sitting back and waiting. Now is their opportunity and I’m pretty sure everyone’s ready to step up and show what they can do.”
Though there have been some rough practices as players try to figure out their new roles, Tracey knows that’s part of the process. He sees that the effort is there, and that’s something to build on.
“I think their attitude is good,” Tracey said. “I think we need to work harder and smarter, which we will.
"The kids are trying hard, there’s no question about that. They want to succeed and they want to do well. They’re not there yet, but we’ve got time.”