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Prep preview '13 -- Title shot still an expectation for Longhorns

By AUSTIN COLBERT

acolbert@dailynews.net

KENSINGTON -- There isn't any shame in being intimidated by a team called the Thunder Ridge Longhorns. And if the name sounds scary, try going head to head with them on a football field, something many teams have tried and failed at in the six seasons Jerry Voorhees has been the coach.

Voorhees has 62 wins to go with 15 losses in his career. The Longhorns destroyed nearly everyone they played en route to the 2011 state championship. They looked equally as formidable last season before losing to Baileyville-B&B 28-6 in the state title game, the same team they beat to win it all the year before.

So does Thunder Ridge expect to compete for the state championship again this season? Yes -- and it's more of a requirement at this point.

"That's always the goal. Got to set your goals high and then climb your way up to the top," junior running back Trent Rietzke said. "I was a freshman when we won the state championship. I didn't play much, but when I did it was fun to be part of such a big thing."

And more big things could be in the works for the Longhorns this season.

The key will be replacing fullback Trevor Lowe, who ran for 855 yards as a junior and 1,597 yards as a senior, with more than 42 combined rushing touchdowns. It will be the speedy Rietzke who will try and step into those shoes.

"It's hard to replace Trevor. You don't replace a kid like that. He was so good for us and ran the ball so hard," Voorhees said. "But we have a lot of confidence up front with our guys. We got a lot of experience. A lot of older guys playing, a lot of juniors and seniors up there. We are going to be pretty big up front. We have a chance to be pretty good."

And most people will agree. Various rankings have Thunder Ridge ranked as the No. 2 team in Eight-Man Division II, with only Baileyville-B&B ahead of them.

Not that Voorhees likes to spend too much time looking at rankings.

"I don't worry about rankings when we look at the beginning of the year," he said. "I could care less where we are ranked. We have to play our schedule, and we have a tough one to start with. That's all we are worried about right now."

The Longhorns have plenty of reason to be worried about their opener. Thunder Ridge will visit Mankato-Rock Hills, a team it lost to 62-16 at home in last year's opener. It was the Longhorns' only loss outside of the state championship game, and first regular-season loss since early in the 2010 season.

So it's no surprise the players enter this season with that loss heavily on their minds.

"It puts a mean bone in our body. We don't want it to happen again," senior quarterback Garrett Krueger said. "The feeling was terrible. It made us think we were going to start the season off bad so it's kind of a ripple effect. You just have to work your way back up."

While the loss didn't seem to hinder the Longhorns the rest of the season, it is still something they look to avoid this year. And with the talent they have returning, it should be possible.

The offensive line will be formidable force, led by senior guard Benton Hrabe, whose brother Blane was the quarterback for the state championship team in 2011. Krueger will provide a veteran presence at quarterback this season, and the return of fullback Derek Reed will be important.

Reed hurt his knee during basketball season but is expected back in week two against Pike Valley. Reed will fill some of the void left by Lowe and help pave the way for Rietzke at I-back.

The defense should be pretty good as well.

"I think our defensive line is going to be a strength of ours," Voorhees said. "The guys in the middle at linebacker count on the guys up front and behind them, and they all count on each other. It's definitely a team effort. I think we are going to be strong up front and definitely with the experience factor we ought to be pretty decent at the linebacker spot."

The Longhorns return all three of its linebackers in Krueger and juniors Nolan Billings and Larame Boyle. Hrabe will anchor the defensive front, with Rietzke, Reed and senior returner Derick Coomes in the secondary.

But don't think any of these positions are locked in stone. Thunder Ridge has depth rarely found at the eight-man level, and has a large, talented junior varsity team ready to step up at moments notice.

That also means Thunder Ridge's dominance isn't likely to be short-term.

"That's the nice thing -- we got competition all over on offense and defense," Voorhees said. "But we know we got our hands full with Rock Hills (in week one). We are going to have to be ready to play well or they might hand it to us again."