By NICK McQUEEN
LA CROSSE -- Join any preseason discussion about what teams are likely to be playing for the Class 2-1A state championship at Lewis Field Stadium in Hays.
In the last dozen years, that conversation always has included the La Crosse Leopards -- or at least it should.
It's no different in 2014.
For 11 straight seasons, the Leopards have made the 2-1A playoffs, and two out of the last three years have played for the 2-1A state championship.
Simply put, the Leopards are established as an elite program in the western half of the state -- and they've done it by consistently having solid players step in to fill holes left by the previous year's graduation.
That's where guys like Andrew Jay come in.
A 6-foot, 170-pound senior for this year's Leopard club, Jay is one of those looking to make a bigger impact as the Leopards embark on what they hope is another -- this time successful -- trip to Lewis Field.
"This is probably going to be the most exciting year for me," said Jay, who will make the switch to a full-time running back this fall. "Last year was fun, but stepping into a new position, a new role with this team. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Jay slips into the backfield full time, filling the void left by the graduation of Lucas Moeder and Marshall Jay, who combined for more than 1,500 rushing yards a season ago.
"It was a smooth transition, and one he's really embraced," La Crosse coach Jon Webster said of Andrew Jay, who did manage 36 carries for 409 yards as a junior, mainly in a slot role. "His role gets to become bigger than it was last year in the run game, and in the pass game. Our trick is to find spots to get him all over the field, and try to create matchup problems."
In another switch, Jay will be running behind senior Sheldon Schmidt, who now will play fullback after being on the line the past two seasons. Schmidt is coming off a season-ending knee injury last year.
"I know anywhere I go, I'll have at least one block from him -- should be able to make a play off of that," Jay said. "He's a load in front of me."
Of course it will help, too, to have the experience of third-year starter Jack Garcia at quarterback. Garcia returns under center after throwing for 2,077 yards and 31 touchdowns for the 12-1 runner-up Leopards in 2013. He also garnered 130 carries for 669 yards in the run game with 11 scores. He enters 2014 as the undisputed leader for the Leopards.
"We had some great seniors in the past that have actually helped me, and kind of taught me that role," Garcia said. "And these seniors on this team are just as good a leaders, if not better, than me.
"We're a special group," he added.
The position shift has left some other holes open for the younger guys to step up as well -- guys like sophomore Clayton Herdman, who will be called upon to fill that X-receiver hole.
"This group works so hard, and never gives up," Garcia said. "We're just ready to battle throughout the game. We're a four-quarter type of team. This team really doesn't have any quit in them."
Schmidt is another prime example of that determination. He watched from the sidelines most of last season after suffering the injury, but battled his way back. During a summer camp at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, Schmidt was named the camp MVP.
A monster at end on the Leopards' stingy defense, Schmidt no doubt will be getting many looks to play collegiately, aside from the offer already on the table from UNK. He'll get more attention now in the Leopards' backfield.
"He's got a little more learning curve just because he's never done it before," Webster said. "He gets chewed by not only coaches, but by his teammates because they know how good he could be once he gets it."
All of the Leopards' versatility through the years has helped in making La Crosse one of the most dominant programs in recent history. It's a program that will be put to a stern test right away with another 2-1A favorite -- Olpe -- in Week 1, and a dramatically improved Class 4A Larned team in Week 2.
"What I love about that matchup (vs. Olpe) is it's east versus west," Webster said. "We get to see a showdown of two good programs right from the get-go.
"We're going to find out how good we are really, really quick."