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Football 2012: Unfinished business in La Crosse

Published on -8/30/2012, 10:50 AM

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1In 2011, the Leopards finished 12-1, set a school record for victories and broke the state mark for interceptions with 34. La Crosse advanced to the Class 2-1A state championship game, first in school history, but lost in heartbreaking fashion to Centralia, 20-14, in overtime.

The Leopards fumbled at the 1-yard line in the final seconds of regulation, one of four fumbles in the game. Keeley and coach Jon Webster said the painful loss is something they'll "never fully get over."

Like Baylor, Keeley believed the Leopards could recover and win a championship this fall. In the spring, Keeley approached Webster in the hallway and asked his coach for "Unfinished Business" to be the team motto for 2012. At first, a superstitious Webster didn't want the saying. Bethany College football had the same slogan Webster's senior season and the Swedes didn't have a strong year. But Webster eventually agreed.

"When a kid takes pride in something like that, I want those kids to have as much ownership in the program as possible," Webster, a La Crosse alum and 29-5 as the Leopards' coach, said.

"The more I thought about it, the other seniors liked it, so we went with it. I want this to be their program, not my program."

The 2012 La Crosse team will have plenty of star power, led by Keeley (1,844 total yards and 169 tackles in his career), senior running back Levi Morss (1,302 rushing yards last year), and senior lineman Trey Renz. Keeley is the only returning player in the difficult Central Prairie League who earned first team on both sides of the ball, while Renz was a first-team selection on the offensive side. Renz, seniors Matt Wagner and Nate Ruff anchor a line that lost several key players. Junior Jake Reifschneider (6-foot, 185 pounds) and sophomore Sheldon Schmidt (6-3, 215) are expected to step in.

"We will be just as good, if not better," Ruff said. "We have been putting in the work in the offseason and during the summer. I have the utmost confidence in this line."

As well, the Leopards graduated quarterback/safety Tayler Stull, a four-year starter, wideout/defensive back Austin Webs and linebacker Tanner Yohe. Depth is a concern. Webster will have just 26 players after he had 35 last season, but the Leopards could still be among the elite. La Crosse enters the season on an 18-game regular season winning streak and hasn't lost a regular-season game at home since 2005.

"Our starting 11 is probably just as good as last year," Ruff said. "We have got good scout team players that can step up at any time if we need them. We are a pretty solid team throughout."

La Crosse will have a different schedule than past seasons with the addition of several strong squads, including Ellis in Week 1, Hoisington in Week 2 and rival Plainville in Week 4.

In the past, the Leopards -- the lone CPL team that plays 11-man football -- has had to schedule weaker opponents, including some out-of-state and neutral-site contests.

"A few weeks there where things kind of got boring and monotonous," Keeley said of routinely blowing out teams last year. "This year, every game is going to be a battle. There is no doubt about it."

La Crosse received bad news in late summer when senior Clayton Basgall, a starting wideout and defensive back last season and the projected starting quarterback this year, will miss the season with a knee injury. Sophomore Jack Garcia, the younger brother of former Leopard all-state quarterbacks Jeremy and Joey, steps in.

Garcia has received support from his family and teammates, including Basgall. Keeley, the son of former Leopard head coach and current defensive coordinator Bill Keeley, texted Webster the Leopards can overcome the obstacle and continue to win games. La Crosse has collected double-digit victories in five of the last six years.

"Kip has been living and eating and drinking Leopard football since he was three," Webster said. "I remember him coming out when he was just a little guy when Coach Keeley just moved here and he would just sit there and watch. He was instantly loved by all the guys on the football team back then. It means a lot to keep the tradition going."

Garcia will also likely start at defensive back, a much different group than last year. Senior Will Storie is the only one who is experienced, but Storie missed the end of last season because of a concussion. Sophomore Lucas Moeder had a knee injury last year and is expected to start at safety.

Last year, the defense allowed just 12.3 points per game and forced 38 turnovers and had collected 21 pass breakups, a major reason for the Leopards' success. At state, La Crosse made mistakes, but nearly had the game won after an 80-yard halfback pass with 53 seconds left. Then, the Leopards fumbled the goal line snap and Centralia won the game. Webster still can't watch the tape and, when the highlight film comes on, always turns away when the state game is shown. Keeley can't watch the tape either and finally had to "learn to quit thinking about" the loss.

"There for a long time, first thing you thought about when you woke up, last thing you thought about before going to sleep," Keeley said. "... I couldn't imagine ending (my career) on that game."

Multiple colleges have contacted Keeley, who said Emporia State University and Pittsburg State University have already offered. However, Keeley isn't focused on college. Instead, he just wants to complete "unfinished business."

"I am playing for the Leopards right now," he said. "There is nothing else that I am worried about."

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