Prep preview '13 -- Huskies' backfield looking to improve game


ALMENA -- Almena-Northern Valley senior running back Jordan Baird has rushed for 2,204 yards and 36 TDs in his career. That included a 1,160-yard season as a sophomore and 993 yards last year. Overall, he has accumulated 2,951 all-purpose yards, 121 tackles and 42 scores.

Senior quarterback Hunter Chandler has collected 2,003 rushing yards and 35 scores, including a 1,111-yard season in 2012. Passing-wise, he has completed 37 of 100 for 363 yards with a 3/6 TD/INT ratio.

No returning area players have rushed for more yards than the Husky duo; Baird has a slight edge over Osborne senior Kenton Ubelaker (2,921 yards) in the all-purpose lead.

However, both Chandler and Baird have yet to participate in a playoff game -- and believe they can each greatly improve for the 2013 season. Chandler wants to step up more as a leader and improve his passing, while Baird has normally used his good vision and quickness for yards. Since track season, Baird remained around 175 pounds, but is much stronger.

"I think this year, he is going to run over somebody," coach Chuck Fessenden said.

Plus, the Huskies have junior fullback Phillip Bryant, who led the team with 108 tackles and rushed for 811 yards. The trio paced the Huskies to 337 rushing yards per game and a 7-2 mark.

Bryant "has got decent speed and runs hard and then he is also a real good blocker," Fessenden said.

Behind those three is a junior who was hurt last season and a freshman. Sophomore Eli Lowry would have played, but injured his knee in basketball during the summer. The Huskies have just 18 players and nine that are considered varsity-ready. Staying healthy is crucial for a district that has Kensington-Thunder Ridge, St. John's Beloit and an improving Natoma squad.

"Hopefully we can take the next step," Fessenden said.

Baird's and Chandler's fathers, Shane and Shad, played on state title teams in the 1980s under Fessenden, now in his 37th year with Northern Valley. Shane Baird still holds the single-season record with 1,573 yards in 1984. Jordan Baird and Hunter Chandler are now on the top-20 list for single season rushing under Fessenden.

Chandler started playing quarterback in seventh grade and has played it each fall except in his freshman year.

"I try to be a leader," he said. "Sometimes I don't have the right work ethic, but I try to be. I just try to keep the guys calm during games. Even if they make a mistake, I don't want my players to get down on themselves. I try to keep them up during games and try to make them feel good and tell them they are doing a good job throughout the whole game."

The 6-foot-1, 156-pound Chandler has worked on improving his strength and passing ability.

"I have just gotten a lot stronger since I was a sophomore, because back then I couldn't lift very much," he said. "I have been lifting a lot of weights since then. So far, we have been working with a lot of the same people the last couple of years. I think this year, we will have a lot of team chemistry."

Chandler has attended a camp to work on his throwing. Last season, he had an 0/5 TD/INT ratio. Fessenden wants his quarterback to be able to run effectively and lead the offense and pass when needed.

"Ever since I was very little, I just couldn't throw the ball very good, but I could usually run, because I was pretty tough," Chandler said. "... I am just trying to get better form, so I can pass better. So far it's been working good."

Fessenden said Baird "has lifted a lot" in the last several months. Northern Valley is 13-5 the last two seasons with two of those defeats by a combined eight points. The other three were blowout losses to Kensington-Thunder Ridge (twice) and Victoria, programs known for their physical play. Fessenden said the team had solid numbers -- "a little better summer than we have normally had" -- in the weight program.

"We just need to get stronger and that's what we worked on during the summer because usually in the last couple of years, they have just manhandled us," Chandler said of Thunder Ridge.

"I don't think we have beaten them since junior high. They have just been really strong; and they have been really good at leading. I just think that we need to get stronger to be able to beat them."

Baird has ran well in the open field and often broke big runs. He scored at one TD every game last season and had at least a 20-yard run in the first eight games, including a 65-yard burst against Thunder Ridge, his season-high. As a sophomore, he had a run of at least 38 yards in five contests.

This season, though, Baird comes with a different attitude knowing its his last year. It could translate into some different, more physical runs this fall.

"I still need to work on my speed and my strength," Baird said. "I need to start just running people over."