SOUTHINGTON - The Chalker Wildcats finished the 2013 regular season 5-5, good enough to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Things steadily improved for the third consecutive season under coach Ryan Slone, but this year's team will have a lot of yards to replace. Current players on this year's team rushed for a combined 64 yards last season and no player completed a pass. Responsibilities of leadership and offensive success lie largely in the hands of senior wide receiver and defensive back Justin Len.
Len is a four-sport athlete, earning letters every year at Chalker in baseball, basketball, golf and football, and it's his leadership and experience of starting since a freshman that will take the Wildcats where they want to go.
"Justin is more of an 'action' leader," Slone said. "He leads by example more than vocally. He's definitely a leader by example when it comes to practice and the games.
"Day in, day out, he gives us full go and shows the younger kids and even some the older kids what it takes to practice like you play. Being a starter from his freshman year until now has given him the experience to have that leadership ability and the kids look up to him."
Len led the team last year in receptions with 24 and receiving yards with 342. Defensively, he led the team in interceptions and passes defended. He will be an asset for the Wildcats as the offense will be more open than it was last year. Len will be looked on to be the anchor on the outside.
"We're going to be passing a lot more than we did last year," he said. "So we're going to have to make a lot more completions than we did last year because we're more of a spread team. We have a lot of skilled kids and a lot more speed than we did last year. One of our goals is to have a more than .500 record and definitely to make it into the playoffs again. I embrace being that leader (and) I want to do everything I can to get our team back to the playoffs."
One area the Wildcats will need to improve on if they want to make that run to the playoffs is defense. They were able to win a few crucial close games, including a win over Mathews that was decided on the game's final play, but their defense struggled at times. They gave up 27 points or more in seven of their 11 games.
"I think we improved a lot from last season and we're improving everyday," Len said. "We need to get better at defending in deep coverage but I think we'll be good at stopping the run."
Len may not be the most outspoken player on the Wildcats, but that doesn't stop him from being the guy everyone feeds off of. Slone sees the team regularly reacting to the way Len performs in games and in practice. His hard work, dedication, and commitment to the team is what makes Slone proud to coach Len.
"The way he plays helps us out as a coaching staff," Slone said. "We don't have to get on the kids as much because they see leaders like him. He's definitely progressed as a player and it's been a joy and an honor to be able to coach a player like Justin."
After finishing up his senior year at Chalker, Len is contemplating joining the police academy to become a state trooper.