The opening is right there for the taking.

The last time the Marshall football team finished atop the Capitol South Conference was 2015, but with half the starters returning from their 2018 squad, this year’s Cardinals team is among the most experienced in the conference. With so much returning, a conference title is a tangible goal the Cardinals have set for this season.

“The Capitol is a pretty interesting small conference this season,” said Marshall’s head coach Matt Kleinheinz, who boasts an 85-70 record entering his 16th season leading the Cardinals. “Quite frankly, you could make a case for about every team in the league to make a run at it.”

It certainly won’t be easy, but with their returning athletes, along with last year’s champ Cambridge needing to replace a sizeable graduated class from last year’s team, Marshall has the opportunity to take their turn atop the leaderboard.

Leading the way are a pair of two-way all-conference players in senior Dylan Horstmeyer and junior Kelby Petersen. Horstmeyer was the Cardinals’ leading rusher in 2018, posting five games where he broke the century mark, including a season-high 167 yards and two scores against Adams-Friendship. He’s taken the reins as a leader for Marshall as a senior.

“(Horstmeyer) has worked hard to not only be a vocal leader, but through his actions as well,” said Kleinheinz.

Petersen was among the group up front paving the way. He made a significant jump from his freshman to sophomore season, and a similar type of jump to his junior season would make him an imposing force in the trenches.

“Kelby has a huge upside and he is just starting to scratch the surface of what he is capable of…” Kleinheinz added. “He had a good summer at college camps, and we are excited to see him take another big step this season.”

While Horstmeyer and Petersen are the headliners for this year’s squad, they’ll need some help on both sides of the ball in order for Marshall to make a run at a Capitol South title.

Offense

The Cardinals will continue to primarily run their option-style offense out of the pistol. After averaging over 25 carries per game in 2018, expect Horstmeyer to once again be the team’s workhorse this year.

The big change from last year will be where Horstmeyer will line up. No longer will he be the team’s primary running back; he’ll be taking snaps at quarterback as the centerpiece of Marshall’s offense in 2019

“He has set a great example for our team by working hard this offseason on his throwing to add that dimension to his QB game,” said Kleinheinz.

Marshall’s primary offensive weapons include the 6-foot-2 Kalob Arndt at WR and the versatile Jack Moen as a tight end/H-back/fullback. Arndt is a real threat on the perimeter with his combination of size, sharp route-running skills and sticky hands, while Moen has the ability to line up anywhere on the field for the Cardinals to create a mismatch.

In the trenches, Marshall’s offensive line returns two starters from 2018: Petersen and senior Zach Igl. Competition for the remaining three spots on the offensive line has been a battle throughout the preseason. Junior Angel Lopez has particularly impressed the coaching staff early, and should be a major contributor for the team.

Defense

The Cardinals have solid building blocks on their defense, starting once again with the duo of Petersen and Horstmeyer. Petersen will demand double teams from opposing offenses, freeing up the linebackers behind him to fly around and make plays.

Just as importantly, Marshall returns a pair of all-conference cornerbacks in Arndt and senior Gus Timpel. The experienced tandem of Arndt and Timpel should make passing against Marshall’s defense a tall task.

Filling out the Cardinals’ playmakers on this side of the ball include Moen at outside linebacker, Lopez on the defensive line and sophomore Cole Denniston at defensive back.

Competition among the defense will be something to keep track of early in the season. The Cardinals will likely look to a handful of their younger players to make an impact on this side of the ball.

“Many of the sophomores will be called on to contribute varsity minutes and maybe even a couple freshman,” Kleinheinz said. “With only eight juniors and seven seniors, we will need contributions from those younger players.”

Capitol South

Conference

Marshall leads the pack – as far as all-conference returnees from 2018 go – in the five-team Capitol South with a total of eight. Along with Horstmeyer and Petersen on the first-team; Arndt earned second-team honors at both wide receiver and defensive back. Moen was a second-teamer at tight end, and Timpel rounded out the honors as a second-team defensive back.

While the top-end talent is certainly there, the Cardinals’ depth could be a concern as the season progresses. Marshall’s varsity roster includes 39 players: a small increase from last year’s 36.

“I like our group if we can stay healthy…” said Kleinheinz. “The experience certainly helps, but we are pretty thin at the varsity level… We just aren’t very deep.”

The Cardinals’ non-conference schedule this year is a brutal one; their five non-conference opponents went a combined 43-14 in 2018. A Week 2 matchup with the defending WIAA Division 4 state champion Racine St. Catherine’s will be a significant test for the Cardinals. They follow up their Week 2 contest with games at Lodi and against a state semifinalist in Lakeside Lutheran before opening up conference play in Week 5.

“Our first goal is always to be playoff-eligible…” said Kleinheinz. “Our second goal is always to control our own destiny in playing for a conference championship. I believe if we can stay healthy through our tough non-conference schedule, we will be more than battle-tested to make those goals successful.”

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