After a 14-1 season and a Class 4A state championship in Coach Jason Garrett’s first season at the helm, there is nowhere to go but down for Bishop Dwenger in 2019.
Not so fast.
Home games on campus isn’t the only thing that Saints fans are excited for this fall. With plenty of production returning and 28 seniors on the roster, Garrett’s team could have what it takes to challenge for the 5A crown come November.
“Perhaps our greatest strength is our experience,” Garrett said. “In going through a long postseason, we had plenty of challenging moments where our team matured a great deal.”
The first player that comes to mind in that line of thinking is junior quarterback Brenden Lytle. After replacing Patrick O’Keefe as the No. 1 signalcaller during the regular season, Lytle got his feet wet on the big stage, growing more comfortable behind center as the postseason went on. He eventually finished with 834 yards passing and 11 TDs against just a pair of interceptions.
O’Keefe is back and will man a wide receiver spot, a position that the Saints are loaded at. Leading receiver Griffin Eifert (463 yards, 6 TDs) is back as well as the shifty Patrick Finley (5 receptions, 127 yards, 2 TDs). Senior Blayne Houston missed the entirety of the postseason last year but has experience on the outside, while Snider transfer Michael Ledo Jr. is “an outstanding addition to the offense” according to Garrett.
Running back isn’t void of talent either, with junior Devon Tippmann (1,238 yards rushing, 6 TDs) the centerpiece at the position. He will surely be spelled by a wealth of comrades both old and new.
While Bishop Dwenger still has a pair of offensive line spots up for grabs, the three that are locked are likely the best trio of OL around. Luke Wiginton (IU commit), Joe Henry and Vinny Fiacable all return.
The defense will be led by Hayden Ellinger, who will also see time at running back. The senior amassed 80 tackles, 12 TFL and 10 sacks last year as a junior and is one of four Saints captains in 2019.
“Hayden is highly respected and is the epitome of a Bishop Dwenger football player,” Garrett said.
The defense has to replace stud defenders T.J. McGarry (90 tackles, 13 TFL, 9 sacks), Jared Lee (80 tackles, 7.5 TFL) and Charlie Howe (55 tackles, 6 TFL, 4 INTs), but there is plenty of talent to step up. Senior Jordan Watercutter had an outstanding but unheralded 2018. A similar performance along the defensive line will definitely get him some attention.
In the secondary, Eifert and his five INTs will be on the back end of the defense again, as well as Finley. Defensive coordinator Casey Kolkman does a stellar job in rotating defenders in and out to stay fresh. The Saints have that luxury will big numbers in the program once again.
Whereas last year’s team took some by surprise in its dominance (outside of a loss to Snider), 2019 has Bishop Dwenger firmly on every team’s radar. This is a team loaded with experience, particularly on offense.
The top three teams in the SAC can be switched around pretty interchangeably. It is not a hard argument to convince anyone that the Saints are the best team in northeast Indiana.
The defending state champions do not have to prove anything to anybody, particularly when you bring back so much production. If Lytle takes the steps forward in his development that Coach Garrett believes he has, the Saints’ offense can be a true dual-threat unit that can pick apart defenses through the air and carve them up on the ground.
The defense may be a little behind the offense to start the year, but that likely won’t last long.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Bishop Dwenger’s lone loss last season was a 21-13 setback to Snider. While not an embarrassing loss, it is difficult to rank the Saints above the Panthers to start 2019, especially with how many seniors Snider has returning.
This feels like a comfortable spot in August for Dwenger, but again, the top three in the SAC are pretty close.
Week 8 vs. Snider at Spuller Stadium
Is this a must-win game? No. It is more of a barometer game for Bishop Dwenger. Win or lose, the Saints will know exactly where it stands in relation to some of the better teams in the state after they play Snider. The lessons learned in last year’s Week 8 loss helped Bishop Dwenger refocus, learn from their miscues and win a state championship.
Could this year follow a similar template?
PLAYER TO WATCH
Michael Ledo Jr., senior, wide receiver
Many of Bishop Dwenger’s returning receivers are sneaky fast, but Ledo Jr. isn’t sneaking up on anyone in the athleticism department.
Adding Ledo Jr. to the cadre of pass catchers on either side of the field for the Saints adds a dimension that the Saints’ vertical game didn’t have a year ago. With an experienced quarterback and a massive offensive line, Ledo Jr. could be the beneficiary of many a pass in which Lytle is able to sit in the pocket and pick a defense apart.