Without a normal offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the La Crosse football team had a learning curve early in the season in its transition to eight-man. The Leopards lost their first two games but have since won four out of their last five heading into Thursday night’s home playoff game against Moundridge.
"Losing the jamboree and summer camps definitely hurt us," said Jon Webster, the team’s head coach since 2009. "If we could have had those reps against other teams, I think it would have helped us, make adjustments, learn some things."
The team lost three players for part of preseason practice due to quarantine. Once the season started, the Leopards have lost players at different times due to COVID-19 restrictions and other illnesses, and had a game against Ness City called off due to coronavirus concerns.
"It’s been an up-and-down season trying to figure out who’s available," Webster said. "It’s been really difficult this year trying to get a rhythm going. I’ve been really proud of our boys, fighting through those challenges."
Webster said the team has started putting it all together the last half of the season.
"Our offense has been really explosive the last four weeks, and our defense has played really well," Webster said. "We’ve held three of our last four opponents to under 100 yards rushing."
The Leopards have had success running the ball, with junior Colby Stull leading the team with 1,100 yards on 114 carries (9.6 average) with 26 touchdowns. He also has caught nine passes for 208 yards and three TDs.
"Colby’s fast, he can put his foot in the ground and go," Webster said. "He’s not afraid to get the tough yards. He’s just a really big part of our offense. He can break a play anytime he touches it."
Part of understanding the eight-man game was learning the angles, Webster said. Defensive players needed to figure out the best angles to make plays and runners also had to make an adjustment.
"I was under the impression you get to the edge," Webster said. "That edge disappears so fast in the eight-man game. Our kids have done a really good job of getting vertical, going north and south quick and change angles that way, using the edge to their advantage."
Webster also counts on the program’s tradition. Colby Stull’s older brother, Tayler, was the team’s quarterback the first time the Leopards got to the state championship game under Webster.
"We definitely try to build off what other teams established," Webster said. "This is a program with a lot of pride. Being successful is something we take seriously."
La Crosse (4-3) also is taking Moundridge (4-4) seriously.
"They’re big, have a couple explosive backs," Webster said. "They look like a tough team. I think it’s going to be a good game."