2012 Season Preview: State rankings mean nothing to Somerset football team
Mention football rankings around Somerset coach Bruce Larson at your own risk.
The Spartans are the top-ranked Division 3 team in the state in the WSN pre-season football rankings. That is based largely upon Somerset's second place finish in the WIAA state championships last November, but for the Spartans it provides more of a warning than a reason for satisfaction.
"Rankings don't mean anything," Larson said bluntly. "We don't even talk about it. We've poked enough fun at other ranked teams, so our kids should know it doesn't matter."
Larson points to the playoff victories last season over highly-ranked teams from St. Croix Central and Bloomer as sufficient reason why the Spartans shouldn't put any stock in the state rankings.
While the coaches are trying to ward off overconfidence, they do have high expectations as the defending Middle Border Conference champions. Expectations are nothing new for the Spartans. In their 11 years in the MBC, Somerset has won 62 conference games. The second highest win total in that span is Durand, with 41 conference wins. Overall, in those 11 seasons, Somerset has compiled 104 wins. Durand is second in that period with 59 overall wins.
Somerset brings back a significant amount of talent from last season. There are significant holes to fill on both sides of the ball, however. Defensively, nearly every Spartan slotted in as a starter saw significant playing time last season, but only three of them are returning to the locations where they were starters last year.
Offensively the Spartans return a few key ingredients. They start with quarterback Tyler Ledbeter, fullback Vern Breault, lineman Reggie Larson and receiver Gaelin Elmore.
In Somerset's offense, one of the most important pieces is a strong working relationship between the quarterback and fullback. Coach Larson said that having returning players at both those positions is the best possible scenario for the quick decisions needed in this offense.
The depth at both those positions is another positive. With Adam Marty, Reed Baillargeon and Luke Praschak available as reserves, this is the deepest the Spartans have been at quarterback in some time.
The same goes at fullback. When Breault missed time with injury last season, Max Praschak stepped in as a freshman and maintained the high level of production needed from that position.
"We've got two good fullbacks. We're pretty fortunate," Larson said.
While there is plenty of varsity experience at fullback, there is very little varsity experience among the halfback options. But there are plenty of options. Seniors Gabe Flandrick, Robbie Lang, Mitch McConaughey and Bobby LeRoy and juniors Bailey White and Aaron Moore could all see time there. Jack Emmert, Dallas Johnson, Brody Penman and Jon Sullivan are also possibilities.
Larson said one skill will separate the halfbacks. "That's a pretty good crew, but we've got to find the ones who want to block."
Reggie Larson was an honorable mention all-state offensive lineman and he will be the leader of the offensive line, returning to his role at guard. Senior Alex Piletich returns at the other guard position. Both are three-year starters.
The other offensive line positions are all filled by seniors. Derrick Berry shifted from fullback to center to take on the signal calling role for the line. Shane Miller and Jared Buchanan have earned the starting tackle posts. Miller saw some action last season at tackle, while Buchanan played primarily on defense last season.
The linemen are big and mobile. Larson and Piletich are both 250 pounds, with Berry at 220 and Miller and Buchanan each at 190. There is also good depth in the line, with Riley Paulus, Cole Martinsen and David Richard leading the reserve options.
Elmore leads the receivers who will work at tight end and split end. The Spartan offensive scheme has different plays depending on whether the formation calls for two tight ends, two wideouts or one of each, so blocking skills and a thorough knowledge of the offense are required.
Joining Elmore in this group are Luke Praschak, Heaven Hunt, Josh Germain, Dalton Johnston and Ben Hammer.
The Spartans will continue to run their triple option offense with few changes from past seasons.
"There are so many variations. It's a matter of getting good at what we do," Coach Larson said.
The defense has plenty of talent. The quest for the coaches is to get the players up to speed as quickly as possible in their new positions.
Two of the linebackers are new to their role. Luke Praschak returns as the power side linebacker, backed by Flandrick and Andrew King. Elmore moves into the middle linebacker role, with Max Praschak and Penman in reserve. LeRoy gets the nod at the sam side linebacker, with White and Baillargeon as his backups.
LeRoy's size might concern some people, but it doesn't bother the Spartan coaches a bit. LeRoy wrestled in the WIAA state tournament last winter at 120 pounds. Defensive coordinator Bob Seibel said emphatically the LeRoy has earned the starting linebacker position. The coaches also pointed to the successful history the Spartans have for playing small, quick linebackers. Seibel said Cory Warman was the starter in Somerset's state championship season "and he was smaller than Bobby."
Larson returns at one defensive end position, with Breault as the leading candidate to play at the other end. Berry, Piletich and Zane Von Holtum are the leading contenders to play noseguard. Buchanan returns at one flex position, with Paulus, Miller and Richard contending for time at the other flex.
Ledbeter moves to the safety position in the secondary after a standout season at cornerback last year. He's backed up by Emmert and Hunt.
Taking over as the cornerbacks this season are Lang and McConaughey, with Marty, Moore and Johnston giving the team plenty of options there.
Seibel said the goals remain the same for the Somerset defense.
"The goal is to be number one in the conference, especially against the run and in points allowed."
Seibel said another key for the defense will be the number of turnovers it can create.
The schedule demands that the Spartans be ready to play right away this season. The season opens on Friday with a game at Bloomer, the team the Spartans defeated to advance to the state championship game last year. The Spartans then jump right into the teeth of their Middle Border Conference schedule, with games against Prescott, Ellsworth and New Richmond to start the conference season.
"The conference is going to be as good as it's been in a long time," Coach Larson predicted, pointing to Durand, Ellsworth and Prescott as teams that will be title contenders. "If I had to pick somebody today, I'd say Durand. The Durand kids are hungry and we have to play there late in the season."