HON Preview: Heart O' North Conference title ‘up in the air’
By: By Mike Granlund, For the Superior Telegram, Superior Telegram
Times they are a changin’. The “Pound the Ground” philosophy in football has been slowly replaced by intricate passing attacks on all levels of football. NFL fullbacks rarely carry the ball. College teams employ a single running back or even zero running backs with the shotgun formation. All of this is with the goal of opening up the game.
The Heart O’ the North high school football conference is no exception. The 2012 season promises to accelerate that transition as six of the top seven quarterbacks in the conference return, and the returning quarterbacks bring along some impressive credentials.
Barron quarterback Neil Rasmussen finished last season with 1,821 yards passing and 20 touchdown tosses. Cumberland’s Kyle Narges completed 60 percent of his passes for more than 1,400 yards. Spooner’s Gavin Anderson threw for almost 1,000 yards in his sophomore season. A very athletic Joe Stark led a Hayward running attack during his sophomore season. Chetek-Weyerhauser’s Jake Schofield was a bright spot for the winless Bulldogs, and Peter Lindsay of Northwestern brings an NFL-type frame at 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds for the Tigers.
Tonight marks the opening of the conference season, and for the first time in memory, only one non-conference game was played by each team before the HON opener.
The following is a brief capsule of each of the teams in alphabetical order.
Rasmussen brings back two tall and talented receivers in Carson Davis and Isaiah Frandsen so don’t look for his passing numbers to drop off from 2011. The Golden Bears climbed back to respectability last season with a 4-5 record and a 42-35 win over Northwestern. This year’s group of talented seniors has been successful since fifth grade. One of the favorites in the HON, the Golden Bears have not qualified for the WIAA playoffs since 2004. Depth may be an issue, so they must stay healthy.
The defending HON champion gets the nod from most seers despite losing many of its 2011 starters. Tradition is the main reason as Bloomer has made the WIAA playoffs for the last eight years (20 overall appearances).
A key loss was Levi Nayes, who had 2,046 yards rushing and 32 touchdowns. Bloomer had fifteen spots on the HON all-conference teams last season, and only defensive tackle Brandon Bruxvoort returns. However, a successful junior varsity program and strong football tradition makes the Blackhawks a contender. Don’t let a 28-14 loss to Somerset in the season opener fool you; Somerset is REALLY good.
Bloomer will improve as the season progresses with all the new starters. Northwestern plays at Bloomer in the final game of the regular season.
Quarterback Schofield is talented, as is lineman Cole LaLiberty and defensive back Tanner Zwifelhofer, but it is a telling statement when your punter (Walker Olson) makes the all-conference team. A 34-6 win over Unity last week was impressive.
The loss of Brady Rose’s 28 touchdowns and Adam Bielmeier’s great play seems to be a major dent in the armor, but the Beavers and Coach J.R. Buckley have Narges at QB and diminutive back Zach Nyius, who gained 224 yards in a 34-28 win over Grantsburg. Feiertag Damon makes our all-name team at end and if he keeps having 140-yard, two-touchdown receiving games like he did against Grantsburg. He may make the all-conference team as well.
One team not expected to “air it out” is Hayward. A controlled grind-it-out running game has been the Hurricanes’ style. With Stark at quarterback, though, Coach may be tempted to try something new, especially after a 1-8 season.
Wyatt Butkiewicz is one of the HON’s stars at running back and return man. Isaac Franson is a tough lineman for the Hurricanes.
The Lumberjacks have come up with some great teams and individuals in the past decade, but a lack of depth is now a problem. A 53-19 loss to Colfax doesn’t bode well for Coach Steve Anderson’s squad. They could surprise, but a lack of size and depth is problematic.
Tiger fans were buzzing about all the passing after a 34-12 win over Ashland last week. Seven pass attempts is a feeble number by most standards, but at Northwestern it represents a statement: “We can pass the football.”
The Tigers will not eschew the running game and their vaunted double-wing attack, but it is more diverse this season.
Lindsay at quarterback is like another running back. Fullback Mark Pooler is the leading returning rusher in the HON, as he gained 854 yards as a junior. Nathan “Chopper” Sikorski may be the next big rusher for the Tigers with his 154 yards in the opener. Northwood transfer Nick Murray also looked good in his debut in black and gold.
Northwestern football success always starts with the offensive line, and it again looks solid. Luke Schulz (6-foot-6, 240 pounds), Luke Johnson (220 pounds), Duncan Magerl, Jay Karich and sophomore Logan Moreau (230 pounds) passed their first test against the Oredockers. Seniors Grant Pearson, Tanner Follis and Micah Olson are Lindsay’s primary receiving targets.
On defense, returning all-conference players Johnny Parkins and Justin Miesbauer (17 tackles vs. Ashland) lead the way. Junior linebackers Tyler Blair, Mitch Graskey and Elias Alexandrou all made their mark in the opening win.
Jordan Orme, only a sophomore, returns as the team’s place-kicker.
Coach Dennis Scherz is 34-11 in his four plus seasons as head coach of the Tigers. Northwestern has only had two losing seasons in 25 years and has qualified for the WIAA playoffs 19 times.
Coach Josh Fizel has football fans in Spooner excited. A 33-21 win over Ellsworth last week and an 8-3 record last year keep the Rails pointed toward the HON title. A big game tonight at Northwestern could spell the fortunes of each team. Last year, Northwestern scored in the final seconds of the game that ultimately ended with Spooner winning in double overtime.
Gavin Anderson was first team all-conference at quarterback as a sophomore. Linebacker Eric Bitney leads the Spooner defense.
Tonight brings some big games in the HON. Bloomer at Barron may be the de facto HON championship game, even in week one. Or maybe it is Spooner at Northwestern that could decide the title. Ladysmith is at Hayward and we predict a win for one of those teams. Cumberland will travel to Chetek, where Beavers coach Buckley previously was head coach.
This year’s HON conference is so even that the conference champion could very well have a loss.
Open up the airways and let the games begin.