Pigskin Primer: An inside look at the first week of fall camp
My football career began in 1995 when I was sporting a perfect side-part combover, which somehow didn't disqualify me from earning all-conference honors as a senior at Mayo High School. My picture is still hanging on the wall there somewhere any time you're in need of a good laugh.
Upon graduating, I took my talents to Gustavus Adolphus College, a Division III school in the MIAC. I peaked as a freshman, leading the team with five touchdown catches, before spending most of the next three years in the training room. My new-look afro might have barely fit under the Michigan-style wings, but I'm still eighth in school history in receiving touchdowns.
When presented with a chance to relive those glory days, I jumped at the opportunity. Especially if I was going to get paid for it. However, a quick look in the mirror shows how much has changed.
The old 175-pound high school receiver/safety is now a 225-pounder who could have played offensive and defensive tackle at the five schools I visited. And the afro is long gone, replaced by a frustratingly short 'do that would have made post-NFL Pat Tillman proud.
But enough about me. It's time to take a closer look at five area football programs.
Red Wing Wingers
Birds of a feather
8a.m. — noon
My legs were churning, my arms were pumping and my time — six minutes, 32 seconds — turned out to be surprisingly fast. But the final straightaway of Monday's one-mile run conditioning test was an absolute nightmare.
While those around me finished with a kick, Red Wing assistant coach Sam Westphall warned me that I was about to get passed. Not that I could do anything about it — I'd already made fast friends with The Wall. One kid breezed by me so fast he might as well have been Willie Mays Hayes after hopping out of bed in 'Major League.'
While I spent the next few minutes gasping for air, two of the fastest finishers — juniors Dayton Johnson and Mike Stegora — continued around the track for a fifth lap, flanking a struggling lineman while offering words of encouragement. The rest of the team soon followed suit, providing another big boy with an escort to the finish line. They surged to the end with the lineman at the point of a Mighty Ducks-style V-formation.
It was an encouraging display of unity for a program that hasn't won a game since the middle of the 2007 season. In fact, third-year head coach Matt Schultz is still looking for his first win with the Wingers. He's optimistic that this will be a breakthrough season.
After he inherited just 14 upperclassmen when he took over the program in 2008, Schultz can now claim nearly 50, many of whom spent significant time in the weight room competing in an offseason challenge program. The winning group was able to skip the mile run.
"This is great," Schultz said when Monday's practice started nearly 20 minutes late due to the extra time needed to pass out equipment. "Usually we have like nine kids."
The Wingers open their season against Austin for the fourth straight year. The Packers have won every showdown thus far, but graduated their best running back and are welcoming a new coach.
Tightening the screws
8 a.m. — 12:30 p.m.
According to senior Bryan Hinrichs, the Cougars spent a good portion of practice goofing around last fall. And why not? Hinrichs and his classmates were essentially having their cake and eating it too, winning every HVL Gold Division game they've played since they were all moved up as sophomores.
But after falling in the section championship to Caledonia each of the last two years — including a heartbreaking 20-12 loss last year — there are already signs this season that longtime coach Willie Rauen might tighten the screws.
Senior standout Cody Lodermeier ad libbed a route from his tight end position during Tuesday's practice and Hinrichs, who expects to step in as the quarterback, failed to execute his rollout properly. It prompted an explosion from Rauen, who penalized two of the team's leaders with an extended visit to the Circle of Up/Down Death after practice.
While I avoided the final two conditioning drills due to the numbers game — believe me, I was crushed — that duo stayed in there until Hinrichs emptied his stomach. Despite the incident, everyone was all smiles afterwards.
"Last year we kind of tried to screw around a lot," said Hinrichs, who also plays linebacker. "I don't want to say we had more talent last year and could get away with it, but we have a lot more work to do this year."
That work will involve replacing the top six offensive linemen from a year ago, while also undergoing a similar overhaul along the defensive front. However, that concern pales in comparison to what Drew Collins is currently dealing with.
The Cougar freshman is literally tightening some screws.
Collins' left arm arm has grown about seven centimeters longer than his right. As part of a rare bone lengthening procedure, he had a screw inserted into his humerus a few weeks ago. He'll spend the next 10 months manually tightening exterior screws in an effort to elongate the bone to even out his appendages.
Watching his elders finally qualify for the state tournament could provide Collins with a welcome distraction during his unpleasant plight.
All about timing
8:30 a.m. — noon
You can't imagine how tempting it was to hit snooze when my alarm went off at darn near dawn. My hamstrings were knots, my back hurt and my neck was stiff. But I didn't and it paid immediate dividends.
The speed trap, which I've got to believe was specifically targeting me after my stunning 4.80 40 time on Monday morning, was foiled by my early wake-up call. I rolled by four different cops without incident en route to the practice field.
Perhaps best of all, I still got my nap, of sorts, when the Knights spent nearly half of practice in the classroom — head coach Scott Van Epps opted for the new smartboard, while defensive coordinator Randy Hockinson remained loyal to the old school markerboard — and taking pictures. Or trying to.
The photographer's appearance almost 30 minutes late frustrated Van Epps, but a talented sophomore class couldn't have arrived at a better time for the program. As seventh-graders those kids finished undefeated while outscoring opponents 324-6, according to assistant coach Troter Bauer.
A handful have a chance to start this fall — speedy Tyler Paquin, in particular, has opened eyes at running back — and others will provide important depth around the field. In part because of their potential contributions, Z-M's coaching staff has dubbed K-W a dark horse threat for the HVL Gold Division title.
Van Epps couldn't be happier to hear that.
"I definitely expect us to compete for a conference championship," he said. "I refuse to talk about anything else."
A new-look defense and short speedsters Oakley McLain and Blake Johnson figure to grab much of the early attention, but the expected quarterback battle has been put on hold. Incumbent Brady Anfinson will run unchallenged with the first-team until Peder Sviggum's balky back is medically cleared.
Sviggum, who started at linebacker last year, was diagnosed with a pre-hernia and opted to have it taken care of rather than wait to see if the condition would get worse. He hopes to return to the field for Week 2 against perennial power Triton, which is a crucial game if the Knights are to realize their goals.
Meanwhile, my personal goals have been boiled down to one thing: survival. Unfortunately, Van Epps' closing remarks did nothing to help my dreary outlook.
"Tomorrow is the day we've all been looking forward to," he said. "That's when you start hitting and earn your spots. Be ready to bring the pain."
During my slow trudge off the field I couldn't help but wonder, what if the pain has already been brung?
Lake City Tigers
"Cya Texas … liar"
7:30 a.m. — 12:30 p.m.
Every coach so far has introduced me at the start of practice, typically just before taking a playful shot at my age. Tigers top man Trevor Narum took a different approach, making a production of showing off the "transfer student" from Texas … who happened to be an All-American tight end on last year's 5A state champs.
That pronouncement elicited cheers from a squad that finished winless a year ago. It also put me in an awkward position, especially when the rapid-fire questions began from my new "teammates."
"Were you really an All-American?"
"Do you play basketball?"
"Are you going to be eligible right away?"
"Do you like the Cowboys or the Vikings?"
I tried to answer without lying, but did tell a couple fibs to maintain the entertaining ruse throughout the first half of Thursday's practice. A few were skeptical, but many bought Narum's story without a second thought. Junior offensive lineman Sam Dugstad was one of those, according to senior quarterback Zach Griebenow.
"Dugstad was like 'Is this guy really playing with us? Cause he's really good, he could help us a lot,'" the veteran signal caller said, laughing. "Make sure you get his name in there for that."
The idea of a balding 28-year-old playing high school football might seem farfetched to some, but the Tigers have already welcomed a pair of potential impact players from outside the school district. I can't fault them for being a little greedy when presented with the thought of a third.
Alex Schmidt switched sides of the Mississippi River and already has some coaches speculating that he might not leave the field this fall, while Connor Schulz transferred in from St. Croix Lutheran. The juniors could both could see significant time at running back, which was otherwise a thin spot for the Tigers.
However, Narum's joke might have also had an unintended consequence. The coaches were forced to stop practice a handful of times to refocus the team and urge them to pick up the intensity; I caught more than a few players looking at me with eyes full of questions.
It didn't help that Griebenow and Alex Lundell, the team's two captains, both left the practice field early. Greibenow aggravated an ankle injury and Lindell went home sick. That seemed to create a leadership vacuum for a team trying to re-establish its football program.
"What are you guys afraid of?" said defensive coordinator Rob Nutt. "You know what I'm afraid of? I'm afraid that the Goodhue defensive end is one step closer to kicking our (butt). I'm afraid that the Kasson running back is three steps closer to scoring a touchdown. Let's do something about it."
As fun as it could have been, they'll have to do that something without this alleged All-American.
7:30 a.m. —9:30 a.m., 7 p.m. — 8 p.m.
As I began charting an extended stay on my couch over the weekend, I couldn't decide if I should be happy or upset with Goodhue lineman Bo Dankers.
On one hand, he provided me with an excuse not to take part in a vicious conditioning segment at the end of my final practice. On the other, his family farm donated five obscenely large tractor tires that the linemen — plus me — flipped up and down the field while the "skill" guys worked up a sweat on the track.
It's the first time the Wildcats have used that particular conditioning drill, which coach Clair Austin borrowed from a prominent Division I program. It's designed to simulate football-specific motions. Oddly enough, the big guys seemed to take pride in the exclusive new challenge — to the point of playfully mocking those who weren't involved.
"I'll bring in the tires from my lawnmower so you can flip those with us," quipped junior lineman Kyle Diercks to standout running back Jared Dicke.
Diercks welcomed me, a pretty boy receiver who may have thrown two decent blocks in my entire life, into a group with something to prove this season. The Wildcats were stuffed by Blooming Prairie on fourth-and-short late in a 21-20 loss in the section championship a year ago.
That disappointment has been the driving force throughout offseason workouts.
"Since the football season ended, we wanted to get back out there right away," said senior Nathan Voth, who plans to shift from center to guard to utilize his speed and quickness.
Junior Weston Gadient, the third returner up front, managed to add 40 pounds of muscle since wrestling at 189 last winter. That leaves two newcomers to fill out the remaining spots. Senior Matt Isaacson, a 270-pound transfer from Coon Rapids, is expected to slide in at left tackle, while the remaining spot is an open competition.
That veteran bulk up front, along with six talented running backs, has the Wildcats thinking big, despite breaking in a new quarterback. At least five people pointed out that the last three times Goodhue boasted a line that averaged at least 240 pounds, it qualified for state.
That number could be as much as 250 this fall.
"We expect to be that power running team we have been in the past," Austin said.
The receiver in me couldn't help but cringe at that statement, but it's impossible to argue with success. Particularly when a long nap is just a few minutes away.