Quarterback Collin Broderick will have to replace 2012 Southern Lakes player of the year Peter Krien. Mike Ramczyk. (click for larger version)
August 06, 2013 | 04:16 PMNike cleats sloshed through the soggy grass of the Lake Geneva Middle School's football fields.
Despite heavy breathing and visible pain, Badger High School students smashed through tackling dummies, sprinted from station to station and did push-ups if they fumbled the football.
Ladies and gentlemen, football is back.
Day One of Badger's quest for Camp Randall Stadium took place Aug. 6 in Lake Geneva, and the overall theme of the morning practice, which was already in full swing by 8 a.m., was hard work, technique and hustle.
Football hopefuls from Badger, Big Foot and Williams Bay high schools got their equipment Aug. 5 and finally hit the gridiron Aug. 6 after the eight-month offseason. To say football is big in the Geneva Lake area would be a monumental understatement.
Badger had its best-ever season in 2012, advancing to the Division I state semifinals for the first time. Big Foot earned its sixth straight Rock Valley South Conference title and advanced to its third Division IV state final in five years. And the Bay overcame five winless seasons to pick up its first win since 2007 in last year's season finale.
Gone are big names like Peter Krien, Robert Johnson, Carter Hehr, Mason Dixon, Garett Cary and Jake Sutter, but back are rising stars like Matt Reynolds, Josh Doyle, Brandon Hausner, John Higgins and Andrew Allen.
So saddle up, fans, it's going to be another endlessly captivating fall.
Games begin Aug. 23 and 24. Here are the five biggest things you need to know this football season:
1. Year of the Badgers, again
Last year was magical for the hometown team.
Playoff wins over Muskego, Franklin and Kenosha Bradford catapulted the Badger football program to an elite level. That success shows no signs of diminishing. With the entire offensive line back in tow (some are recovered or recovering from injury), including studs Logan Tenney, Josh Doyle and Erik Sundstrom, Badger is the heavy favorite in the Southern Lake Conference.
Waterford, last year's winner and traditionally Badger's biggest hurdle, lost some size this fall and already was manhandled by Big Foot in a scrimmage.
Plus, Badger gets the Wolverines at home in the conference opener. You won't want to miss that.
The thing that makes Badger tick is its well-oiled, fine-tuned, ready-for-war running game, which features Reynolds (463 rushing yards, 8 TDs in '12) and Allen (234). Senior quarterback Collin Broderick will lead an offense that must replace 3,000 yards of total offense from two players, Krien (UW-La Crosse) and Johnson (UW-Whitewater). Leading receiver Andy Cychner is back for his senior campaign (114 yards, 2 TDs). Cychner will help anchor and explosive defense as well.
2. A different kind of QB
From all counts, Broderick is a pass-first quarterback, a bit more of a traditional passer than Krien last year. But in Matt Hensler's read-option triple back set, running is mandatory.
Broderick has just enough quicks to turn the corner and break off a big gainer, but his real strength is airing out the pigskin. And he will have talented weapons at his disposal. Tony Ashley, who caught a long touchdown pass in Badger's season-ending loss to Sun Prairie, will provide a dangerous deep threat, and Cychner and Reynolds are talented pass-catchers out of the backfield or even in the slot.
While there's no way in a million galaxies Badger would become pass-first, expect a bit more of a mix this fall. Broderick is up for the challenge.
3. Can Big Foot continue its dominance?
This is the question on every Chief fan's mind after three bonafide all-state stars graduated. Carter Hehr is playing Division I football at the University of Arizona, Garett Cary's manning the D-line for Division I-AA North Dakota and Mason Dixon could very well reach his goal of breaking all his dad's rushing records at NAIA Beloit College.
It's safe to say Hehr and Dixon were the most productive duo in school history. Including defensive, kickoff and punt return yardage along with offense, the tandem totaled nearly 5,000 yards.
For the past six straight seasons, Big Foot has dominated the Rock Valley South Conference with six titles.
But can these guys overcome the loss of rare, once-in-a-generation talent? The answer is yes. Why? One man — coach Rodney Wedig.
The future Hall of Famer utilizes his talent better than anyone and makes necessary adjustments to fit his players' talent levels. This year, even though talent is lost, big-time talent is back on the defensive side of the ball. Gus Wedig and Collin Frederick, the younger brother of current Dallas Cowboys rookie Travis Frederick, are two leading tacklers from 2012 and are bigger and better. Also, Will Utesch should provide a rock in the middle of the D-line.
Offensively, there will be some trial and error. Senior Brett Morris takes over the team under center, and Brandon Hausner receives his first opportunity to be "the man." Hausner is the leading returning rusher with 443 yards and six scores. He had a whopping 9.6 yards-per-carry average. Tim Long and Quin Dixon, Mason's brother, should spell Hausner if needed. Long will also help lead the linebacking corps.
Morris has a big arm and isn't afraid to chuck it downfield. Though leading receiver Matt Ripkey graduated (40-803 yards, 9 TDs), Wedig will be a first-down and goal-line receiving threat at tight end. He already had a touchdown grab in the team's scrimmage. Also, Dan Pearce, a lanky, prototypical 6-foot-3, 180-pound outside threat, should shine.
Don't worry about the Chiefs. A seventh straight title is close to a sure thing, and the Geneva Lake West boys are a perennial state title contender.
4. Momentum = win + young talent
The Bay is back in the winning column — finally.
It took five long years, a coaching change, a change in philosophy and an unknown nonconference opponent, but it finally happened. However, the key cogs in that win, Sutter, Deaken Boggs, Tony Gonzalez and Parker Danz among others, are gone.
But one thing the Bay had perhaps more than any other area team last season was talented youth. Newcomer Jacob Clark, Michael Guss and Higgins were impressive and matured into team leaders despite their underclassmen status.
Without as strong of a passing game this fall, don't be surprised if head coach and football genius Derek Diehl employs a Wildcat look with Higgins in the shotgun.
Higgins, now a junior, led the team in tackles (84) and was second in rushing yards (145) despite missing action with knee problems in 2012. Clark, a senior, is the team's leading returning rusher with 263 yards.
Expect a read-option look or even a spread formation offensively. No matter what happens with the Bay this year, the rebuilding mode is going well and the heightened emphasis on offseason training and dedication to the team could lead to multiple wins this fall.
5. Back to a normal schedule
Forever, the state high school football schedule has had nine games.
Last year, an experiment based on the increasing fears of concussions made for an eight-game schedule, and thankfully that is gone.
Teams started Aug. 5, considered early, for the second straight year, and will have three full weeks of practice before the season openers Aug. 23.
This will be the first nine-game schedule, though, where Week 9 doesn't come only five days after Week 8. This means if all goes well, powers like Badger and Big Foot should finish up their state runs just before Thanksgiving.
Despite heightened awareness of concussions and parents' increasing fears of their kids playing, full schedules are here to stay and the sport isn't going anywhere. Badger's turnout of 100-plus kids for training camp proves that.