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Fall Sports Preview: Somerset football looking to turn things around

Somerset assistant coach Dean Hoff keeps a close watch as the Spartan quarterbacks and fullbacks work on the timing of their handoffs in a practice last week. 1 / 3
Somerset defensive ends work on jamming tight ends while they maintain their run responsibilities during a Spartan practice last week. 2 / 3
A Somerset receiver leaps high in an attempt to haul down a pass during a Spartan practice last week. 3 / 3

After two straight seasons of failing to reach the WIAA football playoffs, the Somerset Spartans believe they are headed in the right direction in 2017.

For a program steeped in a winning tradition, the past two seasons were a harsh dose of reality for the Spartan players and coaches.

Somerset won state championships in 2012 and 2014 and the Spartans lost in double overtime the Division 4 state championship game in 2011. After the past two seasons with limited success, the Spartans want to return to the playoffs and to the level of respect that the program had built.

Somerset coach Bruce Larson said there are 61 players on this season’s team, saying they are the players who are committed to move the program back in the right direction. The coaches have charted out what is expected of the players and the team is the center of everyone’s focus.

“You learn to sacrifice, to give yourself up for something or someone else,” Larson said in explaining some of the commitment expected of the players. He said there are assumptions made, such as wanting to be the best athlete possible, wanting to play on a championship team and playing where you can contribute best for the team.

While Larson wasn’t ready to say where he expected to end up in the Middle Border Conference this season, he said there is an expectation of the product the Spartans will put on the field.

“I expect that we’ll be a pretty scrappy bunch, a pretty strong-willed bunch,” Larson said.

One of the results of the past two seasons was that a number of younger players began to get consequential varsity playing time, so the team enters 2017 with some knowledge of what’s expected.

That starts at quarterback, where senior Bennett Baillargeon got a number of snaps at the varsity last season. The Spartans have good depth with Will Piletich, Ryan Kelly and Liam Salmon all in the pipeline.

Fullback is another position where there’s excellent depth. Junior Jack Peterson and senior Tanner Miller both have started there in the past. Mason Cook also shows promise and Zach Schmidt could play here once he’s fully recovered from an injury.

There are a number of options at halfback too. Piletich could play here. Justin Rivard, Preston Anez, Brett Vetterkind, Ethan Wegscheider, Riley McGurran and Francisco Gomez are all vying for time on the depth chart.

A leading candidate for most changed player since last year is tackle Dominic Shelley. He’s 6-6, 318 pounds and he’s playing with something to prove. He’ll be at one tackle, with Nick Northey at the other. Brady Wall, Hayden Kelly and Brady Mullenberg are the reserves.

Hayden Berry moves from tight end to guard. The other guard will be Peter Lepper, another player who’s undergone a major makeover.

“I don’t think many kids have changed more in nine months than Peter,” Larson said.

Hunter Young moves into the center position. Henry Thurber and Jake Wittstock will back the guard and center spots. Caleb Getschel will also figure in somewhere in the middle of the line when he returns from an injury.

“It’s a nice group of linemen,” Larson said.

Larson was also complimentary of the receivers and how hard they’ve been working. Clayton Rose is slated at the starter at tight end, but is dealing with a broken hand. Garret Hecht will step in, with Dylan Sayers and Cole Erickson also available. Preston Kern leads the wide receivers, with Austin Simma, Nick Bushinger and Melvin Ortiz getting consideration.

Most of those players will also be seeing playing time on defense. Larson said the Spartans are like most teams, without considerable depth this season.

The strength of the Spartan defense starts up the middle, with Shelley at noseguard and Peterson at middle linebacker.

In the scrimmage, Shelley caused several bad snaps because of the force he used in driving into the center. At 318 pounds, he’s big, powerful and quick.

The coaches like the depth they have at noseguard, with Wall, Thurber and Wittstock all expected to get snaps.

The coaches moved Peterson to middle linebacker following the Menomonie game last year. The coaches think he’ll be one of the best inside linebackers in the area this season.

“I tell you, he’s a tackling machine,” said Somerset defensive coordinator Bob Seibel. “The experience he brings with him really shows. He’s our fastest kid, one of our strongest kids, one of our smartest kids and he’s a tough nut. He’s a football player.”

Injuries have already affected the team’s plans at the flex positions. Young and Hayden Kelly will get the starts there. Rose and Getschel were also in the rotation, but both are sidelined by injuries. Some of the noseguards will see time here until everyone is healthy.

The defensive end positions will be held by Berry and Northey, with Lepper expected to see time at both sides.

Seibel said the success of the defense hinges on the work of the defensive front and he’s optimisticwith what he’s seen so far.

“In order for us to stop the run, those five have to control their gaps,” Seibel said.

Joining Peterson at linebacker will be Hecht, who will handle the rover role, with Grahovac also in the plans.

In the secondary, Justin Rivard will be the boundary corner, backed by Francisco Gomez, Preston Anez and AJ Chladek. The field corner will be handled by Kern, with Roy Hale and David Ortega in reserve.

Baillargeon will start at strong safety, with Austin Simma and Nick Bushinger as backups. Vetterkind and Piletich are competing for the free safety position with Ryan Kelly also in the mix.

The wild card on the defense is Zach Schmidt, who is coming back from surgery to both legs.

“He’ll be number two all across the board, until he wins one of them,” Seibel said, with the plan to ease Schmitt back into the lineup as a super sub early in the season.

Larson said Osceola is the favorite to win the Middle Border Conference title again this season. The Chieftains will be Somerset’s opening MBC opponent on Sept. 1. Larson ranked Baldwin-Woodville and New Richmond as other teams that should be in the battle for the MBC title.

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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