Tags: Feature Sports Story, Sports
Diehl (click for larger version)
Yunker (click for larger version)
Roth (click for larger version)
July 09, 2013 | 02:37 PMWILLIAMS BAY — The owner will start at right tackle. There is a new head coach. Nearly all starters are gone from last season.
But in September, Lake Geneva Generals front man Derek Diehl said he expects his team to be where it has been the last two seasons — the playoffs.
After a successful tryout back in February that saw the majority of the core Generals participate, the franchise almost folded, but that was only the beginning. By May, several starters had left, and just last week, after the team's final preseason game, one final departure meant only three starters remained from last year's playoff team.
The trip to Williams Bay was no picnic for a roster that predominantly resided anywhere from 20 to 40 miles away. Some star players even drove from Waukegan, Ill., to give it their all for the Generals. Local players like Trevor York, Daniel Kant-Hull and Alex Shaban either joined new teams or moved for new jobs. At the end of the day, semi-pro football is a game.
"We went through a rough start," said owner Derek Diehl. "It's been one challenge after another. But you can't take things personally. I never did this to make friends. I'm passionate about the sport, and I thought it would bring entertainment value to the area. Maybe it would inspire young kids to play. Three-fourths of the world is going to take care of themselves."
It was such a drastic change that Diehl reached out to other franchises to ask what to do about mass exodus of players.
He found out you need to build a solid core of 10 to 15 guys that won't leave for any reason.
"We didn't have that team of standout character the first two years," Diehl said.
"Talent wins the games you should win, but character wins championships. I'll miss all of them, but I don't know if we had enough core guys."
As players left, Diehl was suiting up more and more for practices. A former college football player, the 5-foot-9, 240-pound right tackle, now 40 years old, felt like a kid again. He decided it was time for a change at the top, appointing longtime semi-pro veteran Russ Hayes to the head coaching position. A Generals assistant the past two seasons, both playoff campaigns, Hayes is a former Burlington Blue Devils coach.
"I put the helmet on for practice purposes," Diehl said. "I found out I can still make plays, but the recovery time is a little longer. I can walk off the field and walk the next day, so that's good. My wife's not completely for it. But I've been mostly healthy my entire career. Russ started with us but had some ill family members so he was very busy. He is experienced. We talked and he said he would gladly do it."
Hayes will make offensive calls as well, while Diehl will handle the defense.
The team's offensive line, its strength the past two seasons, is no longer around, including the backups. This also forced Diehl's hand as a player.
So how did Diehl go back to the drawing board?
Word of mouth.
With more than 10 years experience in semi-pro football, Diehl has made many contacts over the years. That plus the folding of the Shorewood Monarchs suddenly saw the Generals roster shoot up from 20 guys to nearly 60.
"I have to re-learn what guys can do," Diehl said. "But I suspect it will be business as usual. Three years, we built a roster from scratch and made the playoffs. Then, last year, we started 0-3 and bounced back to make the playoffs. But we must replace talent and a lot of starters. We are better in the linebacker corps, but skill positions are still developing."
After winning its first playoff game as a franchise last year, the Generals were routed in the divisional round of the Mid-States Football League playoffs by the Racine Raiders, who eventually won the national championship.
This year, most players are from Milwaukee, so the troops have been driving out to downtown Milwaukee for Tuesday practices to accommodate everyone. With new faces practically everywhere, from the field to the sidelines, chemistry will be integral to success.
"Guys have only been together four weeks," Diehl said. "But we are getting better every single time."
Diehl said there aren't enough local players, and it's hard to develop a core.
"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "Successful high school guys play college football, and there's only a four- to five-year window for them. A lot get their fill of football. By the time they're 21 or 22, they're looking for a career instead. We got constant contacts from guys who just graduated, but they show up thinking it's easy. However, they see that we have grown men playing and some can't handle it."
Jamal Jones, Ben Todd and James Watkinson are the returning starters, and Ryan Yunker, Davon Sims, Martin Figueroa, Anthony Scott, Jauchee Mouton, Jay Jaster, Adam George and Andrew Colin were all Generals last season.
Yunker, a Badger High School graduate, will start at free safety after getting some playing time last season. Yunker was a soccer player at Badger. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound speed demon racked up 18 tackles against Wauwatosa.
"With so many guys leaving, it opened the door for others to shine," Diehl said.
Sir G Albritton, an athletic, 6-foot-6 quarterback will run the spread offense. In the team's second preseason game, a 30-19 loss to the Wauwatosa Spartans, Albritton dazzled with a 60-yard touchdown run.
Quinten Hardy and Colin will take over running back duties. Despite losing star receivers Ricardo Williams and Demetrius Butler, new receiver Quentin Lutrell might be the fastest man in Wisconsin, according to Diehl. He caught a wide receiver screen against the Spartans, made one move and outran everyone down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown.
"He has multiple state records and ran professionally," Diehl said. "He blew by everybody. It's amazing speed. He's one of the fastest guys in the league, and we will try to get him the ball."
Diehl said Corey Smith, who recorded 22 tackles against the Spartans, will be a solid linebacker. Also, Colin provides a power runner they haven't had in the past. Linebacker James Hicks, a 6-foot, 220-pound athletic player from Milwaukee, should lead the defense.
"He has all the tools," Diehl said of Hicks. "He's very athletic and faster than any linebacker we've ever had. Also, we like Anthony Williams (6-0, 230) at linebacker."
Diehl said the team will run a lot of Cover-2 defenses but will show multiple formations depending on down and distance.
The O-Line is in the early stages of recovery after its complete wipeout from last year. Opposite Diehl at left tackle is Sean Mears, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound mammoth from Milton. The Generals are developing Elkhorn native Jesse Johnson (5-10, 260) at center. Todd (6-2, 330) and Anthony Rankin 6-3, 335) will provide a right-guard-by-committee.
"Our offensive line will be serviceable," Diehl said.
Michael Roth, a 2012 Williams Bay High School graduate, will start on the defensive line. Currently a Beloit College player, Roth is a talented pass rusher.
"He's a good kid," Diehl said. "He does it right. He has a good work ethic and plays at a program that wants him to learn. We'll get him for three-quarters of a season. He's doing well for us."
Another playoff run?
Though everyone is new, and chemistry is still in its infant stages, Diehl said he's never had this much talent.
"Across the board, we have way more skills than last year," he said.
Diehl said the receiving corps has upgraded. Without two stars, quarterbacks aren't relying on certain targets. They are hitting whatever guy is open.
Along with Albritton, Jaster, a veteran semi-pro player, and Williams Bay resident Kaahlin O'Laughlin (6-0, 170) will share snaps under center. Can these passers help return the team to glory?
"We have some inexperience at the position," Diehl said. "But we have four quarterbacks getting playing time. O'Laughlin is learning quickly."
With the addition of eight teams to the MSFL this season, the league is up to 21 teams, with clubs out of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. The Generals' seven-game schedule is loaded with former league champions, national champions and perennial powers.
"Playoffs are possible, but it's not a favorable schedule," Diehl said. "We have the talent, but it needs to gel. We can be really bad or a Cinderella story. We'll be the underdog in every game."
The season opener is Saturday at Rockford, Ill., against the Roscoe Rush.
"I know them well," Diehl said. "It's dangerous when you know each other, because anything can happen. We never had a year where so many quality franchises joined. If we can stay the course and get a couple division wins, we can be in a position to win the division."
After all the adversity, Diehl is excited to take the field.
"Let's go play some football," he said. "We need to stay in it until the fourth quarter. We can't beat ourselves at all. We must play disciplined football."