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2012 Season Preview: Tragedy, depth will best the toughness of New Richmond football team

New Richmond football coach Jason Eckert diagrams a play for the Tiger offense during a recent practice session.1 / 2
Foreign exchange student Juan Pablo catches a pass during the Tigers' photo day last week.2 / 2

With 30 players in grades 10-12, the New Richmond football team knows every member of their squad is being counted upon to contribute in the 2012 season.

The low number of players isn't lowering the Tigers' expectations. Tiger coach Jason Eckert said he believes the team can be a contender in the Middle Border Conference.

"If we stay healthy, I still expect us to compete toward the top of our conference, to be a playoff team," Eckert said.

Eckert raved about the dedication of the team's seniors, saying every senior was involved in a conditioning program over the summer.

"The guys making up the varsity put their time in. They're coming in in tremendous shape," Eckert said.

With the 30 varsity players split evenly among the senior, junior and sophomore classes, Eckert said the biggest worry for the season is injuries. That's why the conditioning was so important, because it should lessen the possibility of injuries.

With 30 players, depth will be a season-long issue for the Tigers. In the starting positions, the Tigers are fielding a talented team with experience at many positions.

The experience starts at quarterback, where the Tigers have two seniors who will see playing time. Drew Durham got most of the snaps last season, but Kaleb Kier has also made himself into an option at quarterback. Eckert said the playing time might be based on situations. Durham is the better passer among the quarterbacks, while Kier is the better running threat.

The two leading running threats out of the backfield will be senior fullback Taner Hoppe and junior halfback Connor O'Laughlin. Hoppe had a strong junior season and the coaches are excited about O'Laughlin's combination of speed and strength. Eckert said he is hoping for 1,500 combined rushing yards from Hoppe and O'Laughlin this season.

Halfback is one of the deepest positions on the Tiger roster. Abe Anderson, Allan Wollenberg and Dominic Ficociello will split time at halfback and Kier will see time here too when he's not at quarterback.

Where the lack of experience shows up somewhat for the Tigers is in the line. The leader of the line is returning left tackle senior Jake LaMirande.

Returning at guard is senior Kaden Meeds and Chase Ludowese has stepped up to win the other guard position. Sophomore Noah Berger has moved into the center role, with Ethan LaMirande also in contention.

Three players are getting reps at right tackle. Junior Christian Johnson and sophomores Gabe Van Beek and Ben Peterson are competing for the role. All three bring good size to the position.

Senior Zac Parfitt saw action in several roles last season, but will concentrate on tight end this year. The split end will be junior Keilan Mehls, with Travis Germain and Trevor Germain in reserve.

One of the focuses during practice for the offense is running plays in faster repetitions. This has been done to build more conditioning into practices and to get the players more reps at running each play.

Nearly all the Tigers will be expected to play both ways this season. That starts at defensive end, where Jake LaMirande and Mehls will get most of the snaps, with Parfitt and Ethan LaMirande also getting time.

The interior line positions will be shared by Peterson, Berger, Johnson, Meeds and Ludowese. With this rotation, this will be the chance for the linemen to get their breaks.

The same will happen at linebacker. Anderson, O'Laughlin and Ficociello draw the starting assignments, with Hoppe, Wollenberg and Kody Hermansen also getting snaps.

Wollenberg and Durham will get the starts at cornerback, with sophomore Derrick Dowd their main reserve, along with the Germains. Kier will get the most snaps at safety. Sophomore Austin Hovel is working his way into the defensive secondary rotation.

Eckert said he expects the Middle Border Conference to be strong once again this season, with Somerset, Ellsworth, Durand and Prescott all being top contenders.

"You've got to put Somerset at the top with all the athletes they have," Eckert said. "You have to put Ellsworth in that mix and Durand has some good athletes too. If we're healthy all year, I feel we can be in that top three group."

There are a number of changes in the Tiger coaching staff this season. Tate Wheeler moves up to defensive coordinator after working on the offensive side the past two seasons. Wheeler is a former defensive back at St. Cloud State and he's been looking to get back on the defensive side of the staff. The rest of the staff includes: Brad Malpert - defensive line; Ryan Schradle - defensive backs; Troy Cran - linebackers; Ben Nadeau -- junior varsity; Travis Helland - freshmen; Andrew McGlenn - offensive line and special teams.

Eckert said the Tigers will be running the same systems as last season, though Wheeler may tweak the defensive plans a bit.

The coaches have been ending practices with competitions at the end of each practice. The coaches are looking to develop leadership skills while doing these team-bonding exercise.

The Tigers were already a close group before the death of senior Jordan Johnson in the week before the season began. Eckert said that was a terribly difficult week for the players, but they've dealt with his loss maturely and are building from the experience.

"Jordan was the guy who would lighten the mood. He had a good sense of humor," Eckert said. "When you needed a laugh, he provided it."

Dave Newman
Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.
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