LaCROSSE — The last three years have flown by for Jacob Showalter and the rest of the seniors.
They were warned it would happen in the blink of an eye, but as an underclassmen, sometimes you take it for granted.
But this year is the final season the seniors at La Crosse will have a chance to write their legacy among the history books of a school with a long tradition in football.
“It just really made me realize that the seniors and older classmen, they’re always telling you it goes by so fast,” Showalter said. “As a freshman, you’re like, ‘Oh, I have four years.’ But they’re right. It goes by fast. You just have to make the most of it.”
To make the most of it this year, the Leopards will have to rely on that senior group and a solid sophomore class to grow up quickly.
La Crosse went 5-6 a year ago, took second in the district to Plainville — the eventual Class 2-1A state runner-up — and went on the road to surprise rival Meade in the first round of the playoffs with an upset. The season ended a week later at Smith Center, a team with another strong tradition on the gridiron.
“That’s one of those things we’ve always had on our side,” said head coach Jon Webster. “But one of the best season some of our kids have had is a 5-6 season and went to playoffs. A year before that, we were 3-6. We really need to get back to making our tradition every year and not relying on, ‘Well, we’re La Crosse.’ We’re not the La Crosse we were four or five years ago. We need to get a reputation for ourselves to be tough again and that we play to the whistle and hit and are very, very physical. That’s something the seniors have embraced and made a team motto: Remember the tradition, but make your own chapter of it. I think that shows a lot of maturity in that senior group.”
The playoff spot in 2016 was important because it followed up on a 3-6 year that snapped a long streak of playoff appearances. It also marked a resurgence after the team went 0-4 to start the year.
“Last year, we came in and lost our first four, played some really talented teams and talented kids — whether it was the Schippers kid from Colby or the Davis kid from Ellsworth,” Webster said. “Those dudes could fly. We continued to get better every week, even though it didn’t show on the scoreboard. We were getting better as we went. When we went into that Ellis game last year, Ellis had all their kids back from injury and had a lot of enthusiasm. They hit one big play, and I thought we were in trouble. Our kids took a deep breath and calmed down. Then they played really good football against them and Oakley.
“Plainville, we did some good things, just had too many mistakes turning the ball over. Then we go down to Meade, and that’s a good one to build off of. We give them that first-round playoff loss. And Smith Center, I felt like that was a game that take away a couple turnovers, and it’s a close, close ballgame. That kind of seemed to be the theme of our year last year. We’d play people really tough, but it didn’t show up on the scoreboard because of turnovers. Washington County, we were in the red zone four times and didn’t score because of turnovers. Hopefully we can build off that success and learn how to finish drives and finish games.”
Gone from last year, though, is the offensive firepower of Clayton Herdman, Jasey Woods and Caleb Sherman. Herdman threw for 1,144 yards and rushed for 1,096 while accounting for 34 total touchdowns. Woods was the second-leading rusher with 963 yards and six TDs, while Sherman was a threat in the passing game with seven receiving touchdowns.
Now, the Leopards will rely on a sophomore at quarterback — Hunter Morgan. He saw spot duty behind Herdman last year, who is now on the Washburn University roster.
“Quarterback, losing Clayton, a three-year starter, there’s a lot of experience gone,” Webster said. “Hunter Morgan is going to be our starting quarterback to start the season. He’s been good in practice and during camp. He’s making good decisions every day and improving. He just needs to see some game reps to really test his medal. We have a lot of confidence in Hunter. He was our backup last year and played some spot duty. I think he’ll have a good season, it just might take a little while for him to get going.”
At running back will be sophomore Kalen Thielenhaus and Christian Suppes, a junior. Zak Brown, a senior, also could figure into the mix. Brown is the team’s top returning rusher, gaining 100 yards last year behind a senior-laden backfield.
Of the four returning starters on offense, three are on the line — including Showalter.
“It doesn’t really matter what talent you have,” Showalter said. “It all comes down to how hard we’re working. Yeah, we’re going to have a good O-line, and that’s really key to the offense.”
Webster said that will be crucial, especially early in the year as players gain experience.
“On the offensive and defensive side, the group that’s going to lead us is going to have to be the linemen,” Webster said. “We’ve got three seniors who have started for the better part of three years coming back on both sides. A lot of experience, a lot of size. A lot of guys that get off the ball well. They’re really going to have to carry the way as the backs figure things out.”
The other returning starter on offense is senior Brett Herrman, who played most of last season with a torn ACL. That limited him from playing at 100 percent after getting hurt the third game of the season.
“We have a very talented backfield,” Herrman said. “More importantly, we have a very, very good line. That’s something that nobody ever talks about is the line. But we have Kadin Trower, Jacob Showalter, Kale Mongeau who have all been two- or three-year starters up there. They are going to be tremendous up there. They are going to be able to help the young guys up there — Brock Brown, Keldon Day and Michael Showalter. They have the body size to play good, and they have the help around them to be able to be one of the best lines we’ve ever had.”
Herrman postponed surgery on his injured knee so he could finish the football season, then opted to have it fixed midway through basketball. By the time surgery happened, he said the ACL had completely disintegrated and his meniscus was torn as well.
While playing injured, he finished the year with 34 catches for 666 yards and nine touchdowns — all team-highs in the receiving game.
“Brett, physically, looks better than before the knee injury,” Webster said. “He squats better, his clean is better. He had a nice growth spurt. He rehabbed really hard, and I think he’s surprised at how his body has responded. I think he has a lot more confidence. He’s a guy that is so smart that we can do a lot of different things with him to try to get some matchups that favor us. Put him as receiver, running back, put him in at quarterback. I think he just has more confidence because he’s bigger than he was last year.”
Herrman allows the team to stretch the field with his speed and ability to catch the deep ball.
“He’s quick, taller and can jump pretty good too,” Morgan said about the target. “I feel he’s going to do some pretty good things out there.”
But Herrman knows this year’s team is different than past teams in that there isn’t one or two superstars to carry the load. Instead, it will take everyone stepping up to make the season a success.
“There’s no standout player,” he said. “We’ve talked about this before in practice and before practices began. We don’t have the one standout athlete or the two standout athletes that La Crosse is used to having. We have 24 guys that if we come together can be one of the best teams in the state. That’s what we need to do is come together as one team.
“Those teams that can be better are the ones that realize they don’t have a superstar and they work for it. They work harder than the team that has the superstar. If we can out-work other teams, we can out-play them on the field.”
Webster knows the younger players will have to step up and take a significant role on both sides of the ball. But he also knows that’s something the players are capable of doing as well.
“That’s something that I think we have a lot of kids who are tough and fighters,” he said. “That’s something that can go a long way. When you have a stubborn kid who doesn’t want to back down, that’s a good thing. The big thing we’ve been preaching all summer is win the battle with yourself. When you get tired, find a way to get through. When you get hot, find a way to get through. If you can win the battle with yourself, you have a good chance to win the battle with the guy across from you.”
That fighting spirit and a sense of brotherhood is something the players are hoping helps them make another postseason appearance.
“I’m probably even more nervous this year than my freshman year,” Showalter said. “I want to keep the tradition here at La Crosse. I think that’s every seniors’ goal — to do the best for the younger classmen. Leave it great for them. That’s what I want to do. I want to make sure they keep the Leopard tradition alive.
“No class wants to be the class that doesn’t make the playoffs or is the one that kind of takes a step back,” Webster said. “Once the tradition is established, it kind of breeds itself — especially when you have younger brothers, cousins come through. We have a lot of kids that have seen it and grown up around it. Brett and Blake Herrman, I remember those guys when they were like first- and third-graders coming out on the practice field and stretching with the guys. Their dad was a radio announcer for us, and they were around it all the time. That helped breed that in of what the expectation is toward working every day in practice to be the best team they can be.”