Polk County lifers.
That’s what the Wolverine football team’s offensive line mostly consists of. With four senior starters, there’s bound to be a couple of guys who have been around Polk County football for a while.
Try this – the four senior starters on the offensive line have a combined 34 years in Polk County blue and white.
Angel Alvarez and Kole Powell have been playing for nine years. Connor Cantwell first suited up for a Polk County team when he was four. Jadyn Virgil is the relative newcomer to the group, starting three years ago when he got to Polk County High.
That’s a ton of Wolverine memories.
But, in contrast to those years in the program as a whole, there’s not a lot of experience among the group on the offensive line. Two never played there before this season, as both guards, Alvarez and Virgil, are converted running backs. Powell, who plays tackle, suffered an MCL injury and missed a chunk of last season. Cantwell, playing center this season, stepped in for Powell when he went down.
So how have guys who had limited game experience stepped in to help lead the Wolverines to a 4-3 record and 335 yards of offense per game?
“Those are four really scrappy dudes,” Polk County coach Dustin Fry said. “They play both ways. They grind it out. They’re kind of lunch pail guys, and I don’t have to worry about them day-to-day. I know what I’m going to get. We can work the technique and the finer points of O-line play rather than having to ask them to give effort and get to where they need to be.
“When you can just focus on technique instead of having to focus on doing things the right way, it makes your world a lot easier as a coach, and that’s the type of guys they are.”
Virgil said the aspect of working hard is one of the reasons he’s enjoying his move to offensive line.
“I just enjoy football,” he said. “I like working hard. I don’t mind anything about it. And I enjoy spending time with my teammates, and these guys have been great to be around.
“Your mentality changes when you change positions, going into your senior year, especially. You kind of switch to that mentality of having to take charge and be the top dog out there or else you’re not going to be able to play to your full potential.”
Alvarez has enjoyed his transition up front as well.
“It’s definitely new for me,” he said. “I had to learn a bunch of new things. But I think I like offensive line better.”
Fry said the play of his guards, and the unselfishness shown when switching positions, is something he’s happy to see.
“For Angel to agree to go put his hand in the dirt his senior year, that’s very selfless,” he said. “He’s done a great job for us. Both of them have. We’re a heavy guard-pull team, and I feel great having them go pull. When Virgil pulls, I feel good. When Angel pulls, I know I’m going to get what I need. They’ve been very impressive.”
They’ve been equally impressive on defense, where they’re fourth and fifth on the team in tackles. But that’s expected in 1A football, where everybody has a bunch of jobs.
“That’s what Polk County football is about,” Powell said. “Most of us play both ways, and that’s part of it. It makes you want to fight as hard as you can.”
They’re willing to fight for Fry, too. His background and experience have quickly turned the Wolverines’ offensive linemen into willing listeners – and learners.
“There’s definitely not a question of ‘is he telling me the right thing?’,” Fry said. “They’re going to try to do exactly what Coach (Dave) Minnich tells them, and that’s kind of how it’s played out. We got together during the summer and I coached him up, and it’s really my voice through him. That’s kind of what it’s become, and they really do whatever you ask. There is no question. And a lot of it is because I have the receipts.”
Those receipts include Fry’s background as a player at Clemson and in the NFL, and film from his previous coaching stops, including the University of Arkansas, with linemen executing what he’s teaching at Polk County.
“Then they can see it,” Fry said. “They understand why we want to do it that way. And they’ve jumped in and been an awesome group to have.”
Powell said Fry’s experience does carry a lot of weight.
“It’s great to have him,” Powell said of his coach. “We look up to him in every way.”
Fry said the seniors up front are a huge positive for this year’s team – but a huge drawback in the back of his mind.
“It’s nice to have four seniors there, but then you know you’ve got to go replace four guys next year,” Fry said. “That’s a lot of snaps. I know I’m replacing a ton of snaps from those guys, and it’s not going to be an easy thing to do.”
The end is in sight as well; Friday’s game against Chase is the Wolverines’ last guaranteed home game. While a win in one of their final three games could net Polk County a home playoff contest, Friday night is the last time that pulling on the home jerseys is certain. And it’s something the senior linemen have thought a lot about.
“It’s gone by fast,” Powell said. “I remember being out here for youth every Saturday. I can’t believe it’s gone this fast.”
Alvarez recalls watching and wanting to be one of the Wolverines he followed on Fridays.
“In middle school, I’d always come to the games and wish it was me out there,” Alvarez said. “Finally I’m a senior, and it is. It feels great. I’m definitely gonna miss playing on this field.”
For Cantwell, the longest of the long-timers, his final game at Tennant Stadium – whenever it comes – will be bittersweet.
“I’ve stuck with it for so long,” he said. “I’ve been playing mostly with the same kids since I was four, the same group. There are a couple guys like Virgil who have come in. It’s been like a family. It’s just that atmosphere. It’s the way you feel when you’re getting ready to go onto the field and when you’re finally out there.
“I’ve played youth on this field, I’ve watched high school on Fridays since I was four, and finally being that senior who’s out there and knowing that those little kids are looking at me – it’s just surreal. And it’s fantastic. Winning, being a senior, and heading into the 1A playoffs is great. We’re just trying to take them week by week and win, and hopefully we win them all.”
That’s the Wolverines’ hope, to a man – winning them all. It’s what Fry wants, too, from a purely football perspective.
“The only reason we’ve gotten to where we are is because the O-line has gotten better as the year’s gone on,” he said. “They’re guys who want to play football for the love of football. They don’t want anything in return except some pregame meals and a nice victory meal and maybe a little bit of gear. Their success is going to be our team success. As they go, we go. And I want to see them win championships. I want to see the last game we play be a victory.
“I want to see them get to enjoy what I’ve enjoyed for the last 20 years, and that’s the hard work that you put into football pay off. Those wins are payday. You work all year for 10 guaranteed opportunities. Because they love it so much, I want them to have that success.”
Beyond that, Fry expects them to succeed – at everything.
“I want them to go and be great citizens and have a great life, whether they go to college or get in the workplace,” he said. “They’re going to get back in the community and be great people in the community either way. Because with their work ethic and their mindset, they’re going to be successful just based on how they’ve worked and how they handle themselves.”