WARRIORS’ DEFENSE ALL GROWN UP
In recent years, the Central High School football team has built its image around a quick-fire spread offense. It produced several college players, including receiver Darrion Alton, who is now at Southern Utah University.
Although the offense drew the brightest spotlight, the defense for the Warriors has slowly matured, with many players having three years of varsity experience under their belts.
Now, it’s their turn to shine.
Last season, the Warriors made their first postseason appearance since 2004. They lost in the opening round of the Class 4A playoffs.
Central boasts an experienced linebacker group and athletic secondary that can fly to the football, so Warriors coach Shawn Marsh said the learning curve isn’t so steep this year.
“This will be our third year that some of these kids — well, really most of our defense has started for three years — so that part of it helps immensely,” Marsh said.
The Warriors return seven defensive starters from last season, including the top seven tacklers. Linebacker Joey Estep, who had a team-high 136 tackles, is back for his senior year. Fellow returning linebackers Wes Holdren, Jence Morrison and Dylan Meeder join him. The Warriors’ impact lineman, Chris Franklin, is now at Black Hills State, but Marsh said Central has enough size in the middle to get by.
In the secondary, Central returns both safeties. Shaun Stepisnik, who led the Warriors with three interceptions, and Anthony Zubiate fly all over the field.
Zubiate, a junior, had a team-high three fumble recoveries and 10 tackles for loss — second only to Franklin.
It’s a defensive group that’s ready for a chance to show what it can do, Zubiate said.
“We’ve got plenty of guys who’ve been starting and we’ve got that close chemistry,” he said. “We’re all pretty close friends on the defensive side, too, so I feel like that will help us.
“We’re definitely a loud, fast-paced defense,” he added before smiling. “We try not to talk too much, but we’ve definitely got that little bit of anger in us that we like to carry onto the field. Defensively, as a team, we all like that.”
The Warriors allowed 352 points last season, the worst in the 4A Foothills Conference and seventh-worst in Class 4A. With a 6-5 record, they gave up more points than any other team that finished with a winning record. Big plays sometimes sank Central, as did penalties, but the experience has been irreplaceable.
After another offseason in the weight room and a renewed focus on defense, Stepisnik said the Warriors should be better.
“It just makes things go a lot more fluidly, having guys who have done it before,” he said. “We have a lot of chemistry, so it makes talking to each other a lot easier and we can know what’s going on.”
On the offensive end, things will look a little different. Sophomore Max Marsh, the coach’s son, will step in at quarterback. He saw limited varsity action last season behind E.J. Barrera, who is now at Colorado Mesa University, but led the junior varsity squad. He’s 6 feet tall and 165 pounds, but showed off his arm strength during an early season practice, firing bullets on routes between 10 and 15 yards. He also launched several deep balls and has demonstrated his athleticism in the past.
The younger Marsh said his work with Central assistant coach Pete Cyphers, a former Gold Helmet winner at Grand Junction High School, has helped him improve.
“Coach Cyphers, our quarterbacks coach, has helped me get prepared and has me watching film pretty much every chance that I get,” he said. “It’s been good for me and I’m excited.”
Despite the loss of Alton, one of the top receivers in Colorado last season, Max Marsh still has plenty of targets. Trey Ehlers is the Warriors’ top returning receiver, pulling in 26 receptions last season for 403 yards and two TDs.
The Warriors will also move running back Cade Balleweg out into the slot more often this season, Shawn Marsh said. Known for his blazing speed, Balleweg rushed for 658 yards on 156 carries and 11 touchdowns last season. He showed flashes of pass-catching ability, pulling in 23 balls for 181 yards and four touchdowns.
“Cade did a great job running the football for us the last two years as a running back,” Shawn Marsh said. “Where I think he’ll really excel is at the slot position. We can utilize his speed, he runs great routes, and has a burst that’s tough to defend.”