It runs in the family
Wheeler stakes claim alongside family members on list of MHS greats
Special to the Record
To become a tradition-rich football program, Marion High School couldn’t have done it without great players or good teams.
Since the 1960s, Marion football has benefitted from stars like Ron Oelschlager, Gary Melcher, Lou Wegerer, the late Calvin Hett, Brendan Kraus, and current coach Grant Thierolf.
However, few Warriors, if any, can match the honors of John Wheeler, his brother, Jason, and John’s son, Morgan.
With Marion’s recent 9-2 finish in 2013, he put the finishing touches on a family accomplishment never before done in the history of Warrior football.
Like his father and uncle, Morgan’s two-time selection as an all-state class 3A performer makes the Wheelers the lone family to achieve that feat.
In 2013, the Wichita Eagle named Morgan to its first team all-class 3A on the offensive line and honorable mention defensive line. He also earned first-team honors at defensive tackle from the Topeka Capital Journal. In 2012, he was an honorable mention offensive lineman in the Eagle.
“I’m especially proud of Morgan,” John said. “He’s brought honor to our family and it’s been a joy watching him on the field.”
Thierolf knew from the moment each of the trio stepped on the field that they were good players.
“The Wheelers all could play and they understood their roles on the team,” Thierolf said. “They all were pretty passionate about what they did and they played awfully hard. We were very lucky to have them.”
A 1992 graduate, John laid the foundation for the Wheeler family in 1988 — the inaugural season of Thierolf’s coaching tenure.
Despite a 4-5 finish, John logged enough time playing varsity to earn a letter. He then broke into the starting lineup as a sophomore on a team some considered as good as Marion’s lone state championship team in 1968.
Compared to Hett and the rest of the Warrior interior lines, John was surprisingly undersized, and Thierolf put him at tight end and linebacker.
That season, Marion cruised through the regular season unbeaten.
“Those were some great shoulders to stand on,” John said of the 1989 seniors. “Calvin really helped me, and it was probably the most fun I ever had playing football.”
Marion’s dream season ended at 8-1 in the first round of the playoffs to Chase County, 20-0.
John shifted to the offensive and defensive lines as a junior, after he grew to 6 feet, 4 inches and 240 lbs.
Despite not making the playoffs in 1990, John reeled in the honors, being named all-class 3A honorable mention by Kansas Sports magazine and the Wichita Eagle.
Arguably the most honored Warrior since Wegerer 20 years earlier, John’s career ended at 4-4.
“Our senior year, 4-4 doesn’t sound or look that good, but the games we lost were to good teams, we never really got blown out,” John said. “Even after college, I’d still have to say my sophomore year was the best.”
In his last go-round, John was named to Kansas Sports magazine’s all-state all-class second-team, along with first-team class 2-1A honors from the two newspapers.
That year John became just the second Warrior, along with Hett, to play in the Kansas Shrine Bowl.
Warrior fans could’ve gotten a good idea what the future held from Florence’s 1991 junior-high team.
The Wildcats went unbeaten at 7-0, and Jason and his eighth-grade teammates set their sights on winning a state title in high school.
In a class brimming with talent, size, speed, and athleticism, Jason had the skills to not only match his brother’s success, but better it.
As a freshman in 1992, Jason was mainly used on varsity’s special teams, but started a game at center late in the season. He too earned a letter as a freshman.
As a sophomore, Jason became a permanent fixture in the starting lineup as a sophomore at offensive and defensive tackle. The Warriors finished 6-3 that season, ending a 12-year losing streak to Chase County in the process.
Marion had remained scrappy since 1989, but those promising junior high teams of the early 90s took center stage in 1994.
That year, Marion stormed into the playoffs for the first time in five years at 8-1, losing only to Wichita Collegiate.
The Warriors defeated Silver Lake, Leavenworth-Immaculata, and Wellsville, setting the table for a rematch with the Spartans in Hays, but the Warriors lost 28-6.
Marion’s final mark of 11-2 set the record for Thierolf in terms of victories in a season. Jason was one of five Warriors to earn all-state class 3A honors that year.
“It was my probably my favorite year, but to us (junior class), making the title game was a springboard for our senior year,” Jason said. “Looking back on it, I think we played a little more relaxed my junior year because we knew we had one more year.”
Sadly, 1994 would be the closest 1995’s senior Warriors would get to achieving the goal they’d set as eighth graders.
Jason’s final year looked like it had all the makings for another collision with the Spartans as the two opened the season atop the class 3A rankings.
The two teams met in Wichita early that season with ESPN on hand to showcase the nation’s top high school running back in Collegiate’s DeAngelo Evans.
In a game dubbed in Marion as “The Game of the Century,” two missed PATs and a pair of turnovers helped the Spartans win 21-17 — a game Evans would later say Collegiate was lucky to win.
“We were jacked for that game,” Jason said. “We wanted to prove to everybody a team could beat DeAngelo Evans.”
Many believed the teams would meet again in the state title game, but Silver Lake had other ideas, avenging 1994’s first-round loss with a 15-8 upset, ending the Warriors’ season at 8-2.
“I to this day have yet to watch film of that, and I probably never will,” Jason said. “I won’t take anything away from that team, but we definitely did not play our best game.”
Seven seniors received all-class 3A honors, and like his brother four years earlier, Jason earned the highest honors. He was chosen not only to class 3A’s first team, but Kansas Sports’ all-state all-class second team and both the Eagle and Capital-Journal’s third teams.
To this day, Jason, John, Calvin Hett, and Brendan Kraus remain the only Warriors to play in the Shrine Bowl.
Considering the greatness of his father and uncle, Morgan’s successes on the field would come as no surprise.
“I’ve seen some clips of some of their games and a lot of guys told me about them,” Morgan said of his father and uncle. “I know they were good.”
The spitting image of his father’s stature at 6 feet, 3 inches and 240 lbs., Morgan made an impact on the field as soon as his family returned home in 2012 after residing in Rochelle, Ill.
“We caught Morgan at a different time in his life than we did John and Jason,” Thierolf said. “We got to see them through junior high. Morgan we could just tell would be OK.”
Morgan had two years of football at Rochelle under his belt, and he too became a starter at tackle as a sophomore for the Hubs.
Thierolf likened Morgan’s game more to that of Jason’s than John’s in terms of quickness, getting off the ball, footwork, and doing minor things needed to be successful.
That made adjusting to Marion’s style of play easy, and Morgan had little trouble securing a starting spot both at offensive tackle and defensive end.
The Warriors had just joined the Heart of America league, finishing the season 4-6 in district play. However, a talented junior class left Marion reason to believe 2013 would improve.
Morgan moved back inside to tackle, and the Warrior defense held four opponents scoreless and four more under 14 points through nine games.
Marion’s only loss came in the second game of the season at league foe and fifth-ranked Sedgwick. Led by the one-two punch of quarterback Brylie Ware and tailback Dalton Brandt, Sedgwick pulled away late to grab a 34-14 win — the second most points surrendered by Marion on the year.
The Warriors went the remainder of the season unbeaten, outscoring opponents 228-42, en route to capturing a district title and advancing to the 3A playoffs with an 8-1 record.
A rematch with league rival Trinity Catholic of Hutchinson in sectionals awaited the Warriors on a frigid, wet, miserable night in Marion. The Warriors overcame the conditions, defeating the Celtics 10-0, and advanced to the second round.
To advance as far into the postseason as it had in 19 years, Marion would have to win a rematch in Sedgwick.
The Warriors stuck with the Cardinals the first half, but an early injury to quarterback Taylor Heidebrecht kept the offense from getting on track, totaling just 120 yards. Sedgwick prevailed 35-0.
“This was hands down the most fun I’ve ever had playing football,” Morgan said of his senior season. “After that second game, the coaches let us off the chain and let us do what we wanted as long as we played smart.”
All that’s missing for Morgan to complete the exact journey taken by his dad and uncle is a nomination to the Shrine Bowl.
Much to Thierolf’s delight, yet another Wheeler awaits. In an utterly familiar picture, Jason’s son Corbin’s eighth grade class closed out junior-high with a 6-1 season.