New coach seeks to rebuild MV gridiron glory

Max Mickunas is eager to hit the ground running for Marmaton Valley's football team. While the Wildcats had to cut short its 2020 season due to lack of available players, Mickunas is optimistic the Wildcats will surprise many on the gridiron this season.



August 6, 2021 - 2:16 PM

Max Mickunas is the new head football coach at Marmaton Valley High School. Photo by Richard Luken

MORAN — In nine days, high school students across the state will don helmets and pads, and hit the football field for their first day of practice for the fall sports season.

You’d be hard pressed to find anybody as eager to get started as Max Mickunas.

“I think the players are starting to get as excited as I am,” said Mickunas, who takes the reins this fall as head coach at Marmaton Valley High School.

Mickunas, who worked the past two years as an assistant at Lebo, has already had an opportunity to meet most of his team during offseason weight training sessions. He figures 10 players in all have been a part — usually five or six each day — which sounds modest at first.

But that tells only a fraction of the story.

“In the past, they’ve had one or two a day,” Mickunas noted. “Or zero.

“I’m glad with where the numbers are,” he continued. “Of course I want to bump up those numbers, but I know it takes time.”

Mickunas comes to MV with a daunting challenge, but high hopes.

There was a time, not that long ago, the Wildcats were considered one of the premier eight-man football teams in southeast Kansas.

But it became a struggle to replace outgoing talent with smaller classes, and thus fewer available players.

The Wildcats won three games in 2018 and two in 2019.

Then, when COVID-19 protocols took away a handful of potential players last fall, Marmaton Valley called its football season to a halt after five games and a 1-4 record. Plagued by injuries, the Wildcats lacked enough players to field a starting lineup — even for an eight-man squad.

Marmaton Valley wound up forfeiting the rest of the games on its schedule, ending at 1-7.

“It was pretty tough,” noted Mickunas, although he anticipates a significantly larger roster to suit up this season.

For one thing, those players kept off the field last season due to COVID are back in the fold, including starting quarterback Garret Henderson.

In addition, the freshman class brings a large, talented crew to the roster with some prospects expected to contribute on opening day.

“I want to say we’ll have between 16 to 20 players,” Mickunas said. “That’s a big upgrade from last year. And I’m trying to get everybody I can. I want to bump up our numbers, but I know it takes time.”

It’s not hard to see the appeal for players to be drawn to the energetic, young coach who isn’t shy when asked to speak about  his team’s potential. 

   “I think they’re starting to buy into what I’m telling them,” he said. “They can be good. At the minimum, they have the chance to be very competitive. A lot of it is confidence, getting these kids to believe in themselves. Part of the reason they brought me on board is because I have high expectations and a lot of enthusiasm for what I do.

“I don’t think the gap between us and some of the more successful teams in the area is that wide.”

AT LEBO, Mickunas, 29, shared offensive coordinator duties with head coach Brian Hadley for the past two seasons.

In 2020, the Wolves sported one of the most powerful offenses in the state, and steamrolled their way through the regular season without a loss. Lebo advanced to the state quarterfinals, before falling in a 46-42 heartbreaker.

Mickunas had to miss the game because he was under quarantine orders at the time.

But even with Lebo’s success, it was an easy decision for Mickunas to go to Marmaton Valley, fulfilling his dream of becoming a head coach.

The Atwood native played high school football, but soon realized his physical limitations.

“Let’s just say I’m a better coach than I was a player,” he laughed.

He took a coaching course in college, and soon developed a passion for X’s and O’s and working with other players.

After college, he taught physical education in Horton, then returned for a year to Atwood for familial obligations before joining the coaching staff at Lebo in 2019. Lebo went a combined 17-4 in his two seasons on the coaching staff. 

Mickunas also handled junior high head coaching duties there.

On top of his coaching duties, Mickunas will work as an interventionist at Marmaton Valley Junior High.

ONCE the official practices begin, Mickunas vows to focus on fundamentals, particularly blocking and open field tackling — crucial but often overlooked components in eight-man football.

“Eight-man football is so wide open,” he said. “That’s my objective. Get the fundamentals down. After that, learning our scheme will come naturally. It’s not overly complicated. The kids will pick that up.

“That’s one of the things with high school kids,” Mickunas continued. “You never want to sell the kids short on what they can learn.”

Aiding Mickunas on the sidelines will be Gavin Cole, a former head coach at Marmaton Valley, and Derek Scharff.

“Derek has been around the game a long time,” Mickunas said. “He and Gavin have both been around a long time in the community. They have great rapport with the kids. We will mesh together very well.”