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Game of the week -- Team changes in La Crosse, not success

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

La CROSSE -- After the La Crosse High School football team lost to eventual Class 2-1A state champion Meade in the sub-state final last season, linebacker Marshall Jay and the rest of the Leopard returners knew 2013 would be much different personnel-wise.

La Crosse graduated all-state running backs Kip Keeley and Levi Morss and also lost quality players in defensive backs Will Storie and Clayton Basgall and linemen Nate Ruff, Trey Renz and Matt Wagner.

"It's a new year, nothing is going to be like it was last year," said Jay, a senior and three-year starter.

Jay and safety Taylor Yohe, the team's two most experienced returning players, realized the Leopards wouldn't be as big, fast, strong or experienced as normal.

"We knew we had to work harder," Yohe said.

La Crosse changed its summer weight training program, upped the core work and returned six offensive and five defensive starters from an 11-1 team. The Leopards adopted the motto of "No Looking Back," and aren't focused on the past.

"Early on, they were like, this was hard, by the end of the summer, it was easy," coach Jon Webster said. "I think that showed 'Hey, we've just got to work a little bit harder, and we have got to play with a little more intensity than what we have because we don't have the physical, natural ability that we have had in the past.'

"The kids have done a good job of overcoming what limitations they have had," he added. "So far, it has worked out good for us."

La Crosse has started 3-0, moved to No. 2 in Class 2-1A in the statewide media poll, and upped its regular season winning streak to 30 contests. The Leopards defeated Ellis 45-0, Hoisington 34-18 and Minneapolis 54-14. Statistically, La Crosse outperformed the 2012 team against the same three opponents. On Friday, the Leopards play host to rival Plainville (1-2). La Crosse has won four straight since the matchup resumed in 2010.

"We know what we can do now," Yohe said. "We know what type of team we can be if we are playing our best."

Normally, La Crosse went for 45 to 60 minutes for summer weights and then 15 to 20 minutes for conditioning. Webster thought there was too much standing around as Leopards waited for reps and some congestion in the school's weight facility above the basketball court.

This summer, La Crosse kept the same amount of lifting, but condensed it to 30 minutes. The team also had 30 minutes of core activity and then ran. Webster believed less downtime yielded more productivity. The players responded well, too.

After Week 2, Webster thought La Crosse defeated Hoisington because it was the better conditioned team.

The offense averages 426 yards per game and 8.6 yards per play.

Defensively, La Crosse held Ellis to 12 total yards, limited Hoisington to four yards a carry on 34 rushes and held a Minneapolis offense that started 2-0 and outscored opponents 71-13.

Last year, the Leopards defeated Ellis, Hoisington and Minneapolis by scores of 16-6, 34-12 and 39-7. The offense averaged 400 yards a game and 7.4 yards per play.

"It's been our hard work in the offseason," Yohe said. "We have worked harder in this offseason than we have in the past. I think we have to if we are not as big, as fast, as strong as we usually are."

This fall, La Crosse, paced by junior quarterback Jack Garcia, a second-year starter, has thrown the ball on 32.2 percent of snaps. Last season, the Leopards passed on 20.4 percent of snaps through the first three games and 23 percent for the season.

Webster said Garcia "doesn't get flustered," makes the right play and has good pocket presence. Garcia's experience has helped La Crosse throw more frequently on traditional running downs.

In 2012, Garcia completed 19 of 33 passes for 375 yards for a 5/1 TD/INT rate through the first three games.

He finished 80 of 135 for 1,397 yards with a 16/6 TD/INT rate.

This year, Garcia has completed 25 of 46 passes for 568 yards with an 8/1 TD/INT ratio.

Three plays stood to Webster. Once, La Crosse called a wide receiver screen for Yohe in the flat.

Garcia saw the safety coming and threw the ball out of bounds. He told Webster, "I wasn't going to get Taylor killed."

Another time, La Crosse called a bubble screen against Minneapolis. Garcia pump faked and saw junior Andrew Jay was open downfield. The play resulted in a key first down. Even the interception was a good read, the Hoisington safety just made a great play.

"He is always looking downfield, he is always looking to make the play, and he doesn't freak out," Webster said.

"That's the thing that really stands out to me, in a spot where a lot of kids were going to lose their head and do something stupid with the football, Jack is not doing it."