TRAVERSE CITY — Parker Guss has been waiting a year for this opportunity.
Guss will join his St. Francis teammates on the football field Monday as practice officially gets underway for high school teams around the state. It's been a long wait for the 17-year-old quarterback, who had shoulder surgery last August and missed the entire 2012 season.
"It was horrible," Guss said. "I wanted to be out there every second. It was rough to sit there and watch. I have a chance to make up for it this season."
Guss, an All-State golfer, dislocated his left shoulder playing basketball his sophomore season. He had repeated problems with it and tried physical therapy for a few months. But he he re-injured it last summer.
"I went up to catch a ball and it came out real easily," he said.
An MRI revealed a torn labrum. Surgery followed.
To prepare for the rigors of fall, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Guss spent countless hours in the weight room — and at team conditioning sessions — this summer. Guss said he is "100 percent ready to go."
"I'm working hard and doing everything I can to make sure this is a great season," he said.
St. Francis, which is coming an uncharacteristic 4-5 season, will not be the only Traverse City team breaking in a new quarterback.
Traverse City Central must replace two-year starter T.J. Schepperly, who led the Trojans to a Big North Conference title and a home playoff win. Schepperly rushed for 1,331 yards and 17 touchdowns and passed for 957 yards and eight more scores.
"Having a kid (like Schepperly) for two years was an extreme luxury," Central coach Tom Passinault said.
Sean Williams and Anthony Kratovil will vie for the job.
West will be without Donny Cizek, perhaps the most prolific passer in the area. Cizek completed 124 of 189 passes for 1,848 yards and 20 touchdowns. So who will fill that spot?
"That's a question mark," West coach Tim Wooer said. "That's what everybody wants to talk about. It's the big topic of conversation. We don' know what's going to happen with that."
Zack McGuire and Jeff Turnquist will compete for the opening. Sophomore Zac Zoutendam is waiting in the wings.
The Titans, 6-4 last season, will once again start non-contact training at Camp Rotary in Clare. The team will leave today and return Wednesday night.
"Our kids are excited, but everybody in the state is excited this time of year," Wooer said. "Everybody's undefeated."
West returns seven starters on offense, but just three on defense. And that concerns the coach.
"That's a tough thing," Wooer said. "You would like more of a mix of juniors and seniors so you don't get in that situation."
By contrast, the Titans have a wealth of experience on the offensive line. That line will feature senior guard Connor Hayes, who has committed to Pittsburgh, and sophomore tackle Thiyo Lukusa, who recently earned a scholarship offer from Michigan State. Alec Coolman, Kaden Gillow and Tyler Town also return. Sophomore Tommy Roush, a transfer from Petoskey and another Division 1 recruit, will be in the mix, too. Center Wilson Unke is back after suffering a season-ending injury in the team's first game last fall. His return might allow Wooer to move a lineman to defense.
Grant Balino and Grant Ellison headline the backfield.
The three returnees on defense are McGuire, Geordon Carter and defensive end James Peck.
The Titans open on the road at Midland and Ogemaw Heights before hosting Central in Week 3.
"We have six playoff teams (from 2012) on our schedule," Wooer said. "We're going to have to come out of the gate ready because the front end of our schedule is loaded."
Midland went 11-1, Ogemaw Heights 8-4 and Central 9-2 last season. The Trojans are the defending league champs while Ogemaw Heights brings back the core of its squad.
"I think our league is going to be as good as it's been since I've been here," Wooer said.
The Trojans will be trying to prove they were not a one hit wonder in 2012.
"Our focus this year is one year does not make a program," Passinault said.
Can the Trojans respond to the raised expectations created by last season's success?
Passinault thinks they can.
"I feel real good where our program is," he said. "We're very established with what the kids know on offense and defense. We are so far ahead of past years. Going in, that's a good feeling."
Passinault liked what he saw from his players this summer.
"We had an outstanding summer," he added. "I'm confident we have one of the best weights program in the state and it's really showing on the field and it continued this summer."
Replacing playmakers like Schepperly and T.J. Schwannecke will not be easy, though.
"We lost about 80 percent of our offense, but I feel good about the replacements," Passinault said.
Veterans Seth Tice and Austin Plamondon will anchor the line, along with tight end Rhys Adle. Joe Schepperly returns at fullback while Ethan Campbell and Drew Girard will battle for time at tailback. Kicker Jacob Gorter is a valuable weapon for the Trojans.
Adle, meanwhile, will also start on defense. Josiah Lopez-Wild steps in to lead the unit from his linebacking post. Alex Liggett and Zach Egbert return in the secondary.
Passinault expects 47 varsity candidates to report Monday. The Trojans have a strong junior class. Six sophomores were on varsity last season. Despite that, the JV team went 7-1-1.
"We're anxious to see what we have and if the kids can carry the torch as defending champions," Passinault said.
Central faces Marquette and Escanaba to start the season before tangling with West.
The Gladiators finished 4-5 last season and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1989, ending the longest streak in Michigan.
"It was a long off-season," head coach Greg Vaughan said.
St. Francis is hoping to get back on track with a nucleus that features 16 seniors.
"They have some goals in mind," Vaughan said. "I think they've done a good job this summer of not only pushing themselves, but pushing some of the other kids to get better in all phases. They showed a lot of initiative in terms of conditioning. We had 40 guys there (consistently). It will be exciting to see what they can do."
By comparison, the Gladiators had just eight seniors on last year's squad.
"It was a tough year for everybody," Vaughan said. "It was not the way you would like to see a year end. The seniors worked hard and you would have liked to see them get the opportunity to be in the playoffs. That's something that motivates the seniors this season. They know what that feeling is like and they don't want that to happen again."
St. Francis will be led by seniors Byron Bullough, Jake Khoury and Adam Armour. Bullough, who has committed to Michigan State, will play in the backfield on offense and either in the secondary or at linebacker on defense. Khoury, who has committed to Buffalo, will play fullback and on the defensive line. Armour will play running back and linebacker. Linemen Eric Coggon and Austin Lints will also be key cogs.
"We had to move guys to fill needs last season," Vaughan said. "Maybe this year guys can get back to their more natural positions. We needed them to play last year. Now we have a little more flexibility to move some around a little because our numbers are better than a year ago."
One player who will not be moving from his fullback slot is the 6-3, 285-pound Khoury.
"He did well there," Vaughan said. "We needed a guy who could get us three yards, and he was able to do that, plus some."
Although the Gladiators like to keep it on the ground, Guss has the ability to move the chains through the air, Vaughan said.
"We like to run the ball, but maybe we can sneak in a couple passes," Guss said.
The Gladiators open with New Lothrop, which went 10-1 last season. The Hornets return All-State back/receiver Amari Coleman.
"They have great team speed," Vaughan said. "They have a heck of wrestling team, too, so you know they'll have some tough kids that want to get after it."