PLAYER OF THE YEAR: From linebacker to running backNorthwestern senior set two school records after team injuries forced position change
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
When Justin Alexson began his senior year of football at Northwestern High School, he assumed he’d spend most of his time at linebacker. He’d carved a niche for himself at the position as a junior, leading the team in tackles and earning honorable mention recognition on the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-State team.
But just two games into the season, everything changed for Alexson and the Tigers.
In Northwestern’s non-conference game with Medford, senior Zak Anttila took a hard hit and left the game in an ambulance with a dislocated hip. Anttila had been the Tigers’ premier running back at that point, but his injury was guaranteed to keep him off the field for at least five weeks.
That put the Tigers in the market for a new running back.
“That affected me a lot because I played with him since sixth grade,” Alexson said of Anttila’s injury. “Seeing that he couldn’t play, I knew that I had to step up and try to fill his spot.”
After Anttila went down, Alexson was forced to assume a leading role on both sides of the ball, and by the end of the season, he had developed into the Tigers’ star running back.
“That was something we certainly didn’t expect,” said NHS coach Dennis Scherz. “It was interesting to watch as he evolved.”
Alexson, the 2011 Superior Telegram Football Player of the Year, finished the season with 1,414 yards rushing as a running back. During the Tigers’ last three games of the regular season — three games the Tigers needed to win to qualify for the WIAA Division 4 playoffs — Alexson rushed for a combined 749 yards.
“I knew if we lost one of them, then we wouldn’t get a shot at playoffs,” Alexson said. “I always hoped to make a run my senior year in the playoffs. It didn’t really work out that way, but we got into it.”
In the Tigers’ final regular season game, Alexson ran in six touchdowns against the Ladysmith Lumberjacks to tie a school record for single-game touchdowns. He also set and then reset the school record mark for yards rushing in a single game, with 273 yards against Hayward and 311 against Ladysmith.
On defense, despite being drained from his extra work at running back, Alexson again led Northwestern in total tackles, finishing the season with 64.
“It definitely took a toll on defense. It was a little bit different playing both ways,” Alexson said.
Alexson was named to the Heart O’ North All-Conference first team as a running back on offense and as a linebacker on defense. He was also named All-Region at running back and was honored by the Tigers with their MVP award.
“Justin is an all-around great athlete,” Scherz said. “He’s fun to coach and excels in everything he does.”
Alexson said he’s been throwing a football around since he was in elementary school. His neighbors, Brady and Austin Lind, helped teach him the basics of football and sparked his interest in the sport.
Both Lind brothers earned All-State honors during their time playing for the Tigers.
When Alexson was first learning to play football, he never imagined he’d wind up as the Tigers’ top running back.
“I was going to be a quarterback. I was in Pony League,” Alexson said.
Then as a junior, Alexson moved up to the varsity squad and fell into a starting spot at outside linebacker. He excelled in the position and thought he’d finally found his place.
“That was kind of my spot, and I thought that was going to be my spot this year too,” Alexson said. “But I kind of had to change it to running back.”
Alexson said it was a real challenge to think of himself as a running back, but his teammates on the offensive line supported him and gave him the opportunity to grow into the role.
“I had some fast guards that were pulling in front of me,” Alexson said. “That helps when the linemen are almost just as fast as you and are leading the way.”
Alexson has not decided yet whether he wants to pursue football or golf at the collegiate level, but he hopes to play at least one of the sports. He has been near the top of the HON Conference standings in golf since his freshman season and has played in the state tournament once.