Prep Football Preview: Conference season begins for Tri-County Area Teams

Something new, something better is what the Tri-County Area prep football teams want this season.

Fall Creek wants to not just make the playoffs and have winning seasons but advance in them as well. But they have to do in 2023 without several graduated seniors who were the foundation for the program's reviva ver the past four years: Ben Kelly, Ryan Whittlinger, Ben Sackett, Eli Laube, Demetri Fiore, Leo Hagberg and Parker Coach.

So far so good as the Crickets are 2-0 and have won convincingly over local rivals Altoona and Augusta. Making an impact for FC so far have been junior quarterback Nathan Kurtz, who so far in 2023 has thrown for nearly 500 yards and seven touchdowns to lead the Cloverbelt Conference, senior tight end Bo Vollrath - 27 rec, 277 yards, 2 TDs from last season, 9 sacks on defense; senior wide receiver Jacob Wathke - 27, 402 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs on defense in 2022; senior wide receiver and defensive back Isaac Steinke - 28 Tackles, 6 TFL, 3 sacks; senior lineman Sullivan Monnier and junior running back and linebacker Gus Pranckus plus a host of others, many underclassmen, who are taking the reigns of the program as it begins Cloverbelt Conference play Friday, Sept. 1 at home vs. Stanley-Boyd.

"We're learning at a fast rate. We are not where we need to be, but players are invested in learning the scheme," head coach Tyler Mickelson said. "We're still relatively young. Our underclassmen need to compete at a high level in order for us to find success."

So far so good for Eleva-Strum as well as they snapped an eight-game losing streak with an emphatic win over Colfax last weekend 54-20. The1-1 Cardinals also beat Colfax last season too before losing the remainder of their ballgame, several in close, heartbreaking fashion. To fix this, Central will relay on its deep well of skill players as their young linemen get up to speed. This includes returning starters such as seniors Ryan Julson, Alex Anderson, Jake Olson, Jovanny Stevens and Landon Nordeen. Julson rushed for nearly 200 yards against Colfax and Brennan Hanner, a sophomore, emerged to rush for 60 yards and score two of Central's nine rushing TDs against the Vikings.

"We have a young OL/DL, they are strong young men, but inexperienced. If we can get them up to speed they will help our experienced backs have a lot of success this year. Defensively our box is strong, but young in the secondary. Hopefully we can do a good job of not giving up the big play, and stopping the run." E-S head coach Nick Stowell said.

Eleva-Strum has a tough match-up against one of the state's best small school teams in Alma/Pepin to start Dairyland Conference action but if they can do better than last year's 51-6 outcome its hoped their confidence will grow to where the Cardinals can find the means to win the close games that eluded them last year and make the playoffs for the first time since 2019.

"We have a group of young men who love football, and want to turn around this program and get back to winning, and making the playoffs," Stowell said. "We have had a lot of buzz and excitement at each practice, and kids genuinely want to get better."

It's been a tough start for Augusta, losing to Pittsville and Fall Creek with a young squad that had a lot of seniors graduate from last season's playoff squad such as Brennan King, Ben Dickinsen, Jackson Laxson, Levi White, Nathan Price, Hunter Breaker, Quintin Poirier, Owen Stensen, Dusty Sudbrink, Nolan Taylor and Cayden Guntner.

The Beavers hope conference play will turn things around starting tonight at Whitehall. AHS returns letter-winners and starters lineman Joe Shong, receiver and DB Cashton Leslin, junior lineman Matt Hoff, Kenny Kloss, and senior running back and safety Evan Aichele. He'll be joined in the backfield on offense by sophomore running back Colton Rinka and senior QB Brady Bertrang.

One thing Augusta has shown is their grit, bouncing back from a three-game losing streak in the middle of last season to make the playoffs and they hope to do the same after starting slow this season. Staying healthy will be crucial as AHS does not have the depth they've been used to having the past few season this year.

"Moving on from mistakes, learning from mistakes, playing for each other, never quitting. Those are qualities we want in our players and program," head coach Derek Boldt said. "We have thrown a lot at these kids mentally and physically and they keep improving every day. There is a lot for them to learn, but they are picking it up and always pursuing the impossible goal of perfection. Very coachable kids who want to do well for each other. They encourage each other well and have each others backs. It's going to be a fun season to work with this group of kids."

Osseo-Fairchild has the week off but not because they wanted to. Injuries from the first two ballgames, losses to Arcadia and Altoona, have left the Thunder line-up without of a lot of experienced varsity players on a 36-player roster facing a unbeaten Mondovi squad which finished runner-up in the state finals last season. So the forfeit was taken to spare the worst and hope for bounce back at Elk Mound on the 9th next week.

It goes to show the difficulty the Thunder find themselves in trying to rebuild their program in a very tough, competitive conference and end a long losing streak with pretty much a new coaching staff in place since the beginning of the year (although head coach Chad Tankovich is in his second season as head coach.) In Game 1 vs. Arcadia, O-F tried to at least establish the run with backs such as senior Lucas Frase and sophomore Noah Filla. Sophomore Drew Paulson is the quarterback and OFHS also returns players such as senior skill players Drake Swett, Blake Thurston, Spencer Osmonson and linemen Gryphon Brown and Blake Thompson. Not only does O-F have to do better with the run on both sides of the ball but also cut down on the turnovers which have hurt them in the past and turned the game vs. Arcadia from a close contest at halftime to a rout in the second half.


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