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July 10, 2012 | 04:15 PMWILLIAMS BAY — Last summer, things couldn't have gone much better for the Lake Geneva Generals in their inaugural season of semi-pro football.
Led by owner/head coach Derek Diehl, the area's first semi-pro football franchise went 7-2 and won the Mid-States Football League (MSFL) Northwest Division title. Slowly but surely, the Generals have become a "household name" in the area, Diehl said.
The Generals play their home games at Williams Bay High School, and Diehl already is pumped for the new season, which opens Saturday at 7 p.m. in Racine against the Raiders.
"By shutting out our last two (preseason) opponents, we are right in line to be top defense in the league again," Diehl said. "We were No. 1 in the league last year, and we really haven't missed a beat."
That hard-nosed, physical style on offense and defense has carried over into the recent preseason. The Generals fell in their opener and hung tough with the Madison Mustangs in a scrimmage before shutting out their final two opponents, 27-0 and 50-0.
Lake Geneva's stellar, yet short resume will be put to the test this season. The defending division champs, who lost in the first round of the MSFL playoffs last year to the Chicago Mustangs, will face the league's toughest schedule this season. Six of the squad's eight opponents were playoff qualifiers a season ago.
"We have a way harder schedule," Diehl said. "But I don't put too much weight into our opponents. If we execute the way we do it, we have an opportunity to be successful. We are very physical. We play in space. We shut the run down and put pressure on the quarterback. Down and distance are important."
Philosophies aside, the Generals' opponents are a murderer's row of powerhouses. The Racine Raiders are a historic semi-pro franchise. The Generals have a rematch with the Mustangs, a team that ousted them from the playoffs last year. Lake Geneva also has to face the Roscoe Rush (defending MSFL champs), the Indiana (Indianapolis) Generals (MSFL runners up), the Leyden, Ill. Lions, who beat the Generals last year, and the Lincoln-Way Patriots, a MSFL playoff team last season.
Diehl said the Generals expect to contend this season, but he isn't talking about a league title just yet.
"We don't believe in a championship as a goal," he said. "It's the result of many goals. The Ship (the league's version of the Super Bowl) is the reward of doing it right for eight games. Every week is a championship game for us, and we can't dwell on the past. We must take care of business week in and week out."
With the online message boards and Facebook already blowing up with back-and-forth banter between the Raiders and Generals, Diehl can't wait to start the season.
"Thousands of fans come to Raiders games," Diehl said. "I'm addicted to the game. Anytime you're on the field, it's a great day."
Roster stacked with stars, locals
The Generals welcome back plenty of firepower this summer, including MSFL Defensive Player of the Year Justin Ankley, a 6-foot-4, 325-pound defensive lineman who played college football for UW-Whitewater. Ankley is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, Diehl said.
Other returning all-league performers will include center Michael "B.Z." Rice (6-2, 285), linebacker Jasen Wright (6-1, 245), tight end Mark Chambers (6-4, 250) and quarterback David Byerley (5-9, 170).
"We retained just about everyone," Diehl said. "On any given day, there's a core group of guys who can start."
For now, Diehl must replace return specialist and starting safety CerEllis Lockett, who is doing basic training for the Navy. Diehl said Lockett will return in two weeks. Also, Jimmy Walkinson (6-4, 250), a starting middle linebacker last year, injured his shoulder in a car accident six months ago and hasn't returned since. Newcomer Quintell Pratcher (6-3, 250) a former Burlington Blue Devil, will replace Walkinson. Linebacker Darnell Lynch (5-10, 217) forms a 1-2 shot of play-making ability with Pratcher.
"Quintell is really physical and makes play after play," Diehl said. "We added a lot of athletic ability to our linebacking corps."
Diehl raved about the addition of former Badger star Jeff Vandenlangenberg, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound Genoa City native who offers versatility.
"We have fun with his name," Diehl joked. "He is a phenomenal football player who can do it all. He can play slot, wideout, tight end and fullback. He is a big-time physical player. He plays like he's 240 pounds. He is taking the place of Phillip Towne, kind of that hard-working, give-me-all-the-hard-jobs-and-I'll-do-it type of guy. He's a good guy and doesn't say two words. He plays the game physical and the guys love it."
Trevor York (6-1, 190), last year's leading rusher with more than 600 yards, and starting cornerback Alex Shaban (5-10, 160) were teammates with Vandenlangenberg at Badger. Trevor's cousin Lance, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound former Badger, joins the team this year.
"We have a really solid squad," Shaban said. "The atmosphere that follows the team is positive, and we have high goals. We are all really excited for the regular season. Trevor, Jeff, Lance and I have all been friends for awhile. We all hang out on a regular basis. Our goals for the season are to win the championship and play as a team."
Dan Kant-Hull, a former Williams Bay standout, returns for his second season. He will primarily play fullback this summer after playing several positions last year.
Other Walworth County players are Shane Hinrichs (Elkhorn), Donte Blackburn (Elkhorn), Adrian White (Delavan) and Andy Schlitz (Delavan).
The offensive line received an upgrade with White, a 6-foot-3, 365-pound former Burlington Blue Devil. Schlitz will move to guard, and T.J. Jacobs will play both offensive and defensive line.
Ben Todd (6-1, 310) will anchor the defensive line with Ankley.
The Generals added talent at tight end. Joining Chambers is Vandenlangenberg and Sean Osswald (6-4, 240), an IFL all-star for the Greendale Panthers last year. Diehl said his tight ends are all "top-tier" guys.
"Now we can go with a larger package in the spread," Diehl said. "We want our tight ends to stay on the field. We could have three on the field at once. Byerley's a short quarterback, and having taller tight ends will help him throw across the middle."
Byerley beat out seven other quarterbacks in camp.
"He outshines everyone with his consistency," Diehl said. "His upside is his play-making ability, and he buys himself time with his legs."
At running back, Trevor York and Requize Rhodman are the featured backs, with newcomer Andrew Colin (5-10, 225), a former UW-Stevens Point fullback, providing some depth.
Demetrius Butler and Ricardo Williams return as the primary wide receivers.