SHERBURN - No two sports seasons are ever alike, and with the start of another fall, comes changes for the area high school football teams.
The Martin County West Mavericks changed conferences during the offseason, moving from the Gopher Valley to the Southern Minnesota Conference, in addition to bumping up to Class AA for the playoffs.
The Granada-Huntley-East Chain/Truman Jaguars also will have a new route to state, venturing to the 9-Man playoffs from the Class A 11-man bracket of last season.
ADAPTING TO CHANGES — Martin County West wide receiver Cordell Weber, shown making a touchdown catch last season, and the Maverick football team will have to adapt to playing in a different conference and a bigger class in the playoffs this fall. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
The North Union Warriors will play again in the Iowa Class 1A ranks after last year's inaugural season, but this time, with Tommy Elliott alone at the helm. Troy Adams, the program's co-head coach with Elliott in 2012, retired during the offseason.
This year, Martin County West head coach T.J. Schmidtke will not only have the expected challenges of filling out a successful and tough roster, but will do so in a new conference and playoff section.
"We knew last season that we were going to try and change conferences. With our new conference, there are 10 teams, so we are guaranteed eight conference games. And they are all very good teams," Schmidtke said in reference to league members Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart, Cedar Mountain/ Comfrey, Minnesota Valley Lutheran, New Ulm Cathedral, Red Rock Central, Sleepy Eye Public, Sleepy Eye St. Mary's, Springfield and Wabasso. "The new section came up this spring when we were doing the final numbers on enrollment. We got bumped up into that larger section."
Schmidtke will have starting all-Gopher Valley quarterback Jake Faber back for his final season on the field for the Mavericks.
Last season, Faber started at quarterback before an injury forced Schmidtke to move Austin Krumwiede to the signal caller's position midway through the season.
Krumwiede, along with offensive threat Mitch Sitzmann, graduated to leave large voids for Schmidtke to fill.
"Those two players were big parts of our team last season, and both are special players. This season, though, we have a lot of seniors coming back that have experience and I think we can really be successful," said Schmidtke.
Faber will look to Alex Biehn and Brandon Poppe for some offensive options, as well as Wes Cook and Sam Baker.
"I think that our running game is further along than we usually are at this point in practice, which is great. Our whole line is basically seniors, which has been critical to give Jake time in the pocket," said Schmidtke.
The Mavericks, who finished last year 5-5 overall, are excited about the defensive depth that they are seeing early on at the corner and safety positions.
"I think that we are deeper than we have been in recent years, especially at defensive back. It'll be nice to be able to rotate different kids in and out and not lose much skill-wise," said Schmidtke.
It will get interesting when playoff time rolls around for Martin County West, going up against Section 3AA schools like Jackson County Central, Luverne and Maple River.
"I'm not sure how the playoffs will go. I know that we will have a lot of tough teams to go against. I think we will still be competitive, but for now, we are just focused on one game at a time and the conference games," said Schmidtke.
Along with a multi-dimensional offense and a tough defense, the Mavericks also return Anders Fuller for kicking duties. Fuller connected on 90 percent of his field goals last season and has already been kicking for distance in practice.
Martin County West will open the 2013 campaign on the road, taking on New Ulm Cathedral in a Southern Minnesota Conference game at 8 p.m. Thursday, before traveling for a 1 p.m. game Saturday, Sept. 7, against Cedar Mountain/Comfrey in Comfrey.
The Mavericks will have their home opener Friday, Sept. 13, against Minnesota Valley Lutheran at 7 p.m. in Sherburn.
For GHEC/Truman head coach Lee Dallager, the changes coming for the Jaguars' playoff picture are welcome ones.
After jumping to the Class 1A playoffs at the end of last season, the Jaguars will remain in 9-Man action for the postseason this fall.
"I thought that we were still able to do a good job of playing against those bigger schools in the playoffs, but I think it'll be nice to stay in the 9-Man playoffs again this season," said Dallager. "Most of the teams we will face will be conference teams of ours, so it'll be good competition and they have similar numbers to ours."
This year's team will be without a pair of large contributors from last season in DaMarko Thomas and Dylan Petrowiak, both finished their outstanding prep careers last fall.
Instead, the Jaguars, who finished 3-6 overall last season, will rely on the legs and athletic ability of sophomore Josh Wolter taking snaps from center and senior running back Jared Green to race through opponents' defenses.
"This year's team actually is really senior-strong. We lost some players on both sides of the ball, but we are also largely seniors with experience coming back, which is great," said Dallager.
All-South Confederacy League selection Jared Wander will be a mainstay on both sides of the line during his senior season.
"I think that the key for us will be to stay healthy. We have a good team, and if we get into shape and are able to play our top guys as much as we'd like, then we could do well," said Dallager. "The trick will be to play them enough, but to also give them a break when they need it. We are always, it seems, one injury away from it affecting the season."
Josh Johanson will provide an outside threat for Wolter to throw to, along with Green's running ability for the Jaguar offense.
"This season, we are going to run a little more option in our offense, which takes time to work out the timing of fakes and things," said Dallager. "But with our offensive guys, and with Wolter at quarterback, I think it'll just be a matter of him making the good decision in the moment."
GHEC/Truman travels to Westbrook/Walnut Grove at 7 p.m. Thursday in Westbrook, before hosting Southwestern United in its home opener in Truman at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6.
"Our first couple of games will be nonconference games, so we are looking forward to those to see where we are at. It will give us a chance to see what we need to work on before the conference games really start," said Dallager.
Across the border, the North Union Warriors will embrace the new season with just one of last season's head coaches.
Troy Adams retired from coaching the varsity football ranks, leaving this year's squad in the capable hands of Tommy Elliott.
This season, however, the Warriors will not have to cope with switching classes, remaining at the Iowa 1A level.
"I think this season so far has really started out well. We know what to expect from the 11-Man game now. Last year for the players, it was so much learning by fire. This season, I think the players have a little more comfort in having some experience with it," said Elliott.
With a trio of All-Area players moving on after graduation, the Warriors also will have some big cleats to fill.
"We lost some good players, but we've got a lot of guys coming back that have had varsity experience as well," said Elliott.
Senior Aric Runge will take care of the signal-calling duties, while senior Jacob Braddock will switch from quarterback to running back.
Seniors Marshall Klingenberg, Cody Runksmeier and Chase Paulsen will provide offensive threats for the Warriors, who start their season at home against Estherville-Lincoln Central at 7 p.m. Friday in Armstrong.
"I think running back is a more natural position for Jacob. Last season we had him running quarterback when Runge got hurt, but hopefully our offense can score a little more with a few more options," said Elliott.
Defensively, Runskmeier and junior Jake Govern will hold down linebacker spots, with a collection of players taking care of the corner and safety concerns.
"Last season, we rotated Jake Govern in at linebacker to give some of our other players rest when they needed it. He really stepped up and played well for us," said Elliott. "We've got a decent number of seniors playing, we just need to get a few of the younger guys to step up and fill in to really do well."
After new coaches, a new class and a new system of football were put into place for North Union last season, the Warriors are grateful for some continuity this year.
"I think that with this being my second year as head coach, the players are more familiar with me and the systems we have for offense and defense. They know what drills we want to run in practice," said Elliott. "I think everyone, myself included, just feels a little bit better and more comfortable this season."
With the first few weeks of practice winding down, all of the area football squads will be kicking off their 2013 schedules in hopes of working toward the ever-elusive championship.