Young Blaze team faces big Week 1 challenge

Varpness’ first game as head coach is at Lakeville North

Note: Second in a series of previews of high school football teams in the Sun Thisweek and Dakota County Tribune coverage area.

Burnsville has either two returning starters or four, depending on how you prefer to count them.

Varsity experience might be in short supply as Burnsville plays its football opener this week, but new head coach Vince Varpness says athletic ability is plentiful. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

If you go by number of players, it’s two – senior Tre Thomas and junior Marcus Shepley. If you’re talking about the number of positions, it’s four, as Thomas plays linebacker and running back, and Shepley will be a safety and quarterback.

They will be asked to do a lot while an otherwise young football team gets up to speed.

“We’re trying to push them as much as we can right now because they have a lot of learning to do,” said first-year head coach Vince Varpness. “They were pretty confident as a young group coming in. We have to get them to understand the varsity level is a little different than the younger levels, but they’re responding to the challenge.”

Another challenge to which the Blaze will have to respond comes Thursday, when it plays at Lakeville North in its season opener. North is likely to be one of the top 10 teams in the state Class 6A preseason rankings.

It will be the first game as head coach for Varpness, who was Burnsville’s offensive coordinator last season. He was promoted when Tyler Krebs, the Blaze’s coach the last six seasons, left to be head coach at Lakeville South. The Blaze was 16-5 in Krebs’ final two seasons. Varpness was head coach at St. Louis Park for two years and has had several assistant coaching assignments with high school and college teams.

Many of the same assistant coaches are back at Burnsville, and Thomas said there’s been continuity.

“The tempo is the same. We switched up a couple of things with the new coach, but it’s still the same process,” Thomas said. “We might be a little undersized, but we’ll definitely work, and we have heart.”

Thomas is likely to get more carries this season after Burnsville’s top two running backs from last season (Jackson Martens and Steph Olson Jr.) graduated. He will return to his starting position at linebacker.

Jordan Discher, a 250-pound junior, is likely to play offensive and defensive line and will be one of the leaders of a young group of linemen. Also returning is the varsity placekicker, senior Jake Boatman.

Shepley started at wide receiver last season but is expected to take over as the Blaze’s quarterback this fall. “He’s looking really good. Now we’re trying to build some consistency because he’s still young,” Varpness said.

Another junior, Tommy Tester, also can play quarterback but probably will start the season at wide receiver as the target for passes from Shepley. “He’s a guy like Marcus Shepley who’s going to be on the field all the time,” the coach said.

Seniors Randy Kim, Will Bramley and Levi Gutierrez also are wide receivers, and junior Darien Claybourne is expected to get some carries at running back.

Thomas (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) had more than 70 tackles last season. Shepley will return to his spot at free safety. Junior Kyle Atkinson (6-1, 275) saw playing time on the defensive line and had one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and 1.5 sacks.

Kim, Gutierrez and Tester are candidates to take spots in the defensive backfield, and juniors Drew Schwab and Nick Hudson are likely contributors on the line.

Varpness described Burnsville’s defense as having potential but needing experience.

“We have a ton of linebackers. The outside linebacker position is very competitive right now,” he said. “We’re young in the defensive backfield, but really athletic.”

Last season Burnsville had an experienced, strong group on both lines, but many of them graduated. This year’s linemen will need to take a different path to success.

“Last year’s group was big, beefy and strong. They had brute strength,” Varpness said. “This year’s group is smaller and younger and not as strong, but very quick-footed and very smart. They can pick things up just like that. We’re going to be able to do a lot of things with them up front.”

One player who won’t be part of the linemen group – or at least won’t be in uniform – is senior captain Lucas Moreno, who was ruled out for the season after a neck problem was discovered.

“When I was born one of the bones in my neck didn’t fuse right, so I can’t play at all,” Moreno said. “I’ll still try to be the best leader I can, especially for the young guys. If they need me to run and get something, I’ll be there. If they need me to snap the ball to somebody, I’ll snap it. I’ll do anything to help out.”

“Moreno is a big player. When you walk in the weight room and see him, you know he’s a football player. So that hurts,” Varpness said. “We want him to be around as much as he can. He’s a rah-rah guy and can lead the team in the right way.”

Varpness said Burnsville’s sophomores could be the core of a strong varsity team in a couple of years. For now, he wants to keep most of the 10th-graders on the varsity, although a handful already have been placed on the varsity roster.

“We don’t have huge numbers, but enough to make it work,” the coach said. “Guys are playing multiple positions, learning a lot, running around and having fun.”

After one preseason practice, Varpness gathered the team and told the players he was pleased with their work ethic and attention to detail, points he repeated to a reporter a few minutes later.

“If anything, I’m sometimes too nit-picky. But I’m honestly pleased with where we’re at right now,” he said.

Burnsville football
(Games 7 p.m. Friday unless noted)
Aug. 31 (Thur.): at Lakeville North
Sept. 8: Eastview
Sept. 15: at Lakeville South
Sept. 22: Maple Grove
Sept. 29: Prior Lake
Oct. 6: at Farmington
Oct. 13: Rosemount
Oct. 18 (Wed.): at Minnetonka