After winning the third Minnesota River Conference football title in school history, posting a 9-2 record and finishing just minutes from the state tournament in a section final loss to Maple Lake last year, the Central football team could have a difficult time defending that conference title this season.
Head coach Paul Henn, the 2011 MRC Coach of the Year, will have to build almost an entirely new lineup after 20 out of 22 starters on both sides of the ball graduated last spring. Not surprisingly, Henn’s primary concern entering this season is depth.
“I think the biggest challenge we’re going to face is making sure we stay healthy. Any time you lose 20 starters and move 20 new guys into those spots, that’s depth that’s lost and has to be rebuilt. With the younger guys who maybe didn’t get as many reps even in practice, that’s kind of tough. So our biggest challenge is going to be building that depth,” he said.
While the mass exodus of last year’s seniors left plenty of holes to fill, Henn said that the practice time this year’s players had against last year’s seniors has helped their development, even though many of the underclassmen didn’t play prominent roles on Friday nights.
“These guys got a chance to work so much against a good team last year, so I think that will really help them. I think they’re one step ahead of where you usually would be when you have to replace 20 people,” he said. “We’re really excited about the group that we have. We think we have a lot of talented kids. Defensively, we think we have a group that’s going to be able to stop people. Offense may take a little while longer because of the inexperience, but we certainly have guys who we think are capable.”
Stepping in at quarterback this season is sophomore Isaac Hormann. Despite his youth, Henn said Hormann has shown considerable upside.
“We think he has all the potential in the world to be a really good football player. He’s got big shoes to fill. Reid [Stacken] completed pretty close to 70 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and two interceptions [last year], so Isaac is going to have his hands full. But Isaac is going to be as good of a thrower that we’ve had since the Esselman crew graduated. We think he’s got a pretty good future ahead of him if he stays healthy.”
Junior running back Ryan Sullivan will be the team’s primary ground attack option, with sophomore Noah Peterson helping out in the backfield as well.
Perhaps the team’s deepest position is the wide receiver/defensive secondary corps, led by senior Tom Messner and junior Casey Clemensen.
“We have a lot of depth at wide out this year. We have a lot of options, a lot of kids. So who knows, we may have to use that a little bit more this year, and we think we have the kids to do it,” said Henn.
On the line, senior Jordan Stevens is the only returning starter, though senior Sam Newbloom started on the defensive line last season and will play both ways this year.
“Sam’s as good as there is in this league, so we’re looking for big things out of him this year,” said Henn. “He was one of our best defensive players at the end of last year, and he’s the only one back with any of that starting experience. He’ll have to be the one who is kind of the anchor. It’s the same thing for Jordan Stevens on offense. He’s our only offensive player back. He’s playing right guard for us like he did last year, so he has to be the anchor for us.”
Fellow seniors Mike Mullen and Trevor Groschen will also play on the offensive line, as well as stepping in at linebacker on defense. Along with Newbloom, they will serve as team captains this year.
“These older guys, these seniors and captains, really have to be the guys to step up and anchor and help this young team come together and play together,” said Henn.
Looking around the MRC, Henn said Belle Plaine could be the team to beat this year.
“Belle Plaine was second place last year and has everybody back. I think they have a really, really nice football team,” he said. “Tri-City United, bringing in those LeCenter kids is going to take them right from the bottom of the league to the top of the league in a hurry. And Watertown, those are the three teams I think are going to be toward the top of the league.
“We certainly would like to play well enough to work our way up there, but it’s a balanced league again, and a lot like last year it’s going to be real hard for any one team to make it through without any losses. We’re just going to play it out each week and hope we stay healthy and see what happens.”
Henn said the goal is always to compete for the conference title.
“We want our kids to have that kind of success and we want them to believe that they can do that,” he said. “We think we have enough talent to compete with any team we’re going to play this year. So for us it’s just going to be, get that first win, the second win, get that confidence built and go from there.”
Central’s first game takes place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 30 at home against Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted.