No. 3 Small School: New Coach, Same Expectations at Lutheran North
"Scholarship High” is under new management.
Kyle Wagner is in his first season as Lutheran North’s head football coach. He replaces Carl Reed, who resigned in the spring to take over at De Smet. Wagner was Reed’s offensive coordinator when the Crusaders won the 2019 Class 2 state championship.
Wagner was hired in the spring of 2020 to be Ritenour’s coach. He led the Huskies through a brief season this past spring, which he did after he was named Sikeston’s coach. That position was short lived, however, because when Reed left for De Smet, Wagner was brought back into the fold at Lutheran North.
“It feels just like my sophomore year,” senior quarterback Brian Brown said. “We’ve got (Wagner) back running the offense, everything is going to be smooth.”
Though there have been some notable departures like Reed and standout seniors Toriano Pride and Ali Wells — both to East St. Louis — there’s still plenty of talent in the fold at Lutheran North. That includes 17 seniors, many of whom were contributors to the Crusaders' most recent championship.
“Anytime you have that many guys that have played in big games and been in championship games, they understand what the grind takes,” Wagner said.
It all starts up front with an offensive line that’s anchored by three-year starter Khari Loggins (6-foot-4, 315 pounds), who’ll be at left tackle. Senior Josiah James (6-0, 240) will be at center while junior Marvin Stringfellow (6-2, 265) slots in at left guard. Sophomores Louis Jordan (6-4, 240) and Demetrius Jones (6-4, 250) will man the right side of the line.
Should the Crusaders need to shuffle in fresh bodies on the line, they have several underclassmen who should be able to step in.
“It won’t be anyone little,” Wagner said. “They won’t be as experienced, but they won’t be small.”
Brown (6-2, 170) is a three-year starter at quarterback. He took over under center in the second game of his sophomore season due to injury and never looked back. As a starter he’s 17-1. During the course of his previous two seasons Brown has thrown for 2,495 yards, 32 touchdowns and been intercepted six times. He’s also rushed for 11 touchdowns and nearly 700 yards.
“He’s the representative of what we want this program to be,” Wagner said. “He does everything right. When he makes mistakes he doesn’t get his head down, he comes back and he fixes it and won’t make that mistake again.”
In the backfield, senior Jaylin Carson (6-0, 195) is as healthy has he’s been during his high school career and has won the starter’s job. He rushed for 420 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior.
Wagner was positively giddy talking about the deep and talented group of wide receivers he plans on deploying. Lutheran North has earned an identity as a run-first offense, but don’t be surprised if the Crusaders put it in the air plenty.
“I think we’re balanced,” Wagner said. “We’ve got athletes, we’re going to spread it out.”
Senior Kevon Jacobs (5-8, 170) is poised to be a threat at the slot. Freshman Justin Price and junior Ricky Dixon (5-8, 155) have turned heads during the preseason as well.
Jacobs said the offseason was significant as the Crusaders formed the bonds that will carry them through the challenging times they’ll face this fall.
“It feels way better to have a full summer to be working with our teammates,” Jacobs said. “We got to know each other.”
There are several new faces in the program who came over from Trinity after it closed at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Among them are senior safety Julian Juszczyk (6-0, 170), a standout track and field athlete, and senior linebacker Charles Sills (6-1, 200).
Up front the defense will ask senior nose guard Jaylen Banks (6-4, 275) to continue to dominate after he made 34 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks as a junior.
Junior Rico Merriweather (6-0, 170) and senior Jamez Lee (6-4, 240) will step in at linebacker with Sills.
“They’re good, they just need game experience,” Wagner said.
Senior Caldra Williford (5-10, 165) has the most experience in the defensive secondary. Dixon and Jacobs will also be at the back end of the defense with Juszczyk.
There are different faces in different places at Lutheran North, but the mission remains the same. After winning four consecutive district championships and making four deep playoff runs, the experienced Crusaders understand there are no shortcuts and they are acting accordingly.
“The biggest thing is we have to take it day by day, one game at a time,” Brown said. “We can’t look ahead because who knows if there will be a next game when it comes to the playoffs. It’s game by game, play by play.”