Prep preview '13 -- Plenty of Leopards looking to make their name known
By NICK McQUEEN
At least in terms of headlines and attention from opposing coaches, the La Crosse High School football team might have been dominated the past two years by two big names.
The biggest concern from the opposition had been stopping former standouts Kip Keeley and Levi Morss.
That's what has La Crosse fifth-year head coach Jon Webster and the 2013 club excited about a new season. Those two, along with three other decorated graduates, are gone. It's time for someone new to step up and help carry on the strong Leopard tradition, a mantra that has helped produce nine straight Class 2-1A playoff appearances and a state runner-up showing in 2011.
"Ready to get back on the field. That's about all I can say," said junior quarterback Jack Garcia, the lone returner on a feared Leopard backfield from 2012.
"I know we have guys who can step up," he added. "Not really feeling too much pressure right now. I saw how we worked this summer -- really ready for this year."
For those who hope to derail the Leopards, Garcia could be the focus on an offense that is relatively new at the skill positions. Senior Lucas Moeder takes over at fullback for Keeley, and senior Warren Storie takes over Morss' role. Last year, the Keeley, Morss tandem accounted for nearly 2,700 rushing yards and 34 TDs. The two gained statewide attention and Keeley and Morss went on to Kansas State University. Keeley went for football and Morss for track and field.
"Lucas Moeder is a guy who wants to get out there and get out from shadows," said Webster, who has guided the Leopards to 40 wins and six losses in his previous four years. "He's battled injury his whole career and now he gets a chance to go out there and go both ways. It's time for him to shine."
Webster feels that way about his entire club, which is likely to have two freshmen starters, one each on offense and defense. This group is looking to make its own name -- as well as carry on the strong tradition.
"Play for the sticker," Garcia said. "and play for the guys that have come before us.
"Play for the community," he added. "It's not just a team thing. We play for everyone."
Garcia was forced into his starting QB role early. Last season, he took over just weeks before the first game after expected starter Clayton Basgall suffered a knee injury. Garcia responded by helping La Crosse finish 11-1. He threw for 1,397 yards -- more than a third of that to Keeley -- with 16 TDs and six interceptions. That's what he did with little time to prepare for the varsity level. This time around, it might be different.
"He had a great summer in 7-on-7 and did what he needed to do to get better," Webster said of his QB, the third Garcia brother -- along with Joey and Jeremy -- to start for the Leopards at the position. "He's really taken control of the offensive unit."
Garcia has found a pair of favorites in the passing game -- senior Taylor Yohe (a second-year starter) and junior Andrew Jay.
"I've been practicing with the first team all summer (at QB). Not like last year when I was a wide receiver," Garcia said. "Feel a lot more comfortable this year."
Garica, Moeder and Storie will work behind a line with three newcomers and three veterans. Senior Jacob Reifschneider returns, and will start at center. Junior Sheldon Schmidt is back at tackle and senior Marshall Jay returns at tight end. Seniors Kody Burns and Cody Lee will be the starting guards.
"They're really excited it's their turn and they're really going to get after it," Webster said of his guard duo.
The biggest questions for the Leopards have been on offense, but defensively, Webster said the Leopards are solid. It starts with Schmidt at defensive end. He was a menace as a sophomore with 72 tackles (nine for loss) and a team-best seven sacks.
"It all starts with the 'D' and O-line," said Schmidt. "Need to move people and get where we need to be -- open up those holes."
He was key in doing so last year on offense and helped the Leopard defense hold its opponents to a little less than 11 points per game in an 11-0 start. La Crosse lost to eventual state champion Meade, 34-12, on the road in the sub-state championship game, a season after falling to Centralia in the state finale.
"I think I've got a lot stronger this summer," Schmidt said. "Agility has developed a good amount, too."
The Leopard defense also will be helped by Yohe, who will enter his third season as a starter at safety.
"We got a lot of attention for the offense the last several years, but defense is where we hang our hat," Webster said. "We want that to be the strong suit every year. Our strength is our speed.
"We're pretty small compared to what we have been, but we're quick and we're fast," he added. "That's going to be an advantage for us."