Eight-man era begins with high expectations
More than a year and a half since the decision was made, the time for eight-man football has arrived for the Gilman Pirates.
After testing the waters Sept. 18 in a scrimmage with New Auburn, the new era of Pirates football begins this Friday when Gilman hosts Bruce at 7 p.m. in the opening week of the delayed 2020 season.
For now, the season consists of five games against members of the newly-formed Central Wisconsin West Conference. After that, it remains to be seen how the Pirates and the rest of the nearly 40 teams playing the eight-man game this fall will close things out. The scrimmage went fairly well, according to head coach Robin Rosemeyer, and served as step one in what will be an interesting season for coaches and players.
“It is definitely a learning process,” he said Monday. “Every day really you’re learning things. We’re keeping the same terminology that we’ve used in the past as much as we can and running some of the same plays. We have to modify a little bit here and there.”
A week into practice, the senior players felt the transition from 11-man to eightman was going well.
“I think we’re going great with the transition from 11 to eight,” Kade Kroeplin said. “I really don’t see too much of a difference in how we’re running stuff.”
“It’ll be different,” Isaac Wininger said. “From what I heard from some schools is that it’s hard getting going the first year with the switch. I thought it would be maybe a little bit of a challenge. But it’s going smooth.”
One thing going in Gilman’s favor is this year’s 15-man roster seems perfectly suited to make the switch. Offensively, the Pirates aren’t deep in offensive line experience, but three is all that is needed to build a line and that’s what they have in junior center Zack Marion, junior guard Bryce Chovan and sophomore guard Braeden Person.
Speed and athleticism are key attributes to have both offensively and defensively and that’s where this group’s strengths seem to be.
“You put out your best 11 athletes out there in 11-man football, but you want to make sure to get a little size in some spots,” Rosemeyer said. “Here it is a lot of speed, so we’re fortunate that we have the speed to do that.”
“We play with speed anyways and this is a speed game even more,” Kroeplin said.
From a strategic standpoint, the biggest thing coaches and players are getting used to is the narrower field. The field will still be 100 yards long, but it’s about 13 yards narrower and Rosemeyer said that is affecting the offensive playbook.
“It’s very much a hash game,” he said. “If you’re on one hash, the wide side for passing is obviously an important deal. You can still counter to the short side because people are going to expect you to go to the wide side. It used to be that the field was split every 18 yards. Now it’s from the sideline to the first hash it’s 7 yards, the next hash is 8 yards, so it’s 15 yards from the sideline to that first hash. Before it was 18 yards. So we lost 3 yards, which can be a big deal.” “There’s not a lot more room considering the field is shrunk down, but there’s a lot more opportunities to get outside and run in space,” senior Brayden Boie said. Kroeplin and Boie were Gilman’s top two running backs a year ago, running for 876 yards and 692 yards respectively in the Pirates’ 9-3 season that ended in Level 3 of the WIAA Division 7 playoffs. Boie was a second-team All-CloverWood choice and brought more of the physical aspect of the run game, while Kroeplin, a first-team All-CloverWood back, is the speedster who can break a big one at any time and should be a huge factor in this year’s offense.
Kroeplin, who should be back in the lineup this week after some time off with a hamstring issue, said he likes the eightman set up from a back’s perspective.
“It’s a lot easier to see where the hole is for running backs,” he said.
Sophomore Grady Kroeplin, who ran for 287 yards and five touchdowns on just 31 carries, will certainly get touches out of the backfield and freshman Troy Duellman adds quickness as well.
Junior Julian Krizan takes over the starting quarterback job after backing up Gabe Gunderson the past two years. Boie is his backup. Kroeplin and junior Bryson Keepers are the team’s leading returning receivers. Kroeplin caught 18 passes for 340 yards a year ago, while Keepers caught 17 passes for 225 yards and a team-high four touchdowns. Keepers leads an athletic crew of tight ends that includes Wininger, first-year senior Andrew Hecker, who showed his athleticism last year on the basketball court for Gilman, and sophomore Branden Ustianowski.
Freshmen Nate Bertsinger at center and Dalton Wisocky and Caleb Marion are backing up on the offensive line. Marion could also play some tight end.
The upperclassmen are all learning multiple positions. First, several players are athletic enough to do so. Secondly, with just 15 players, the Pirates will need to make sure they’re covered if health issues arise.
Defensively, Gilman got off to a good start by keeping New Auburn out of the end zone in Friday’s scrimmage in the Trojans’ two 15-play series that started at the 40-yard line.
“Defensively we’re still working on gap control, who’s got outside leverage, who’s got the flats, nothing’s really changed terminology wise there,” Rosemeyer said.
Gilman plans to use a 3-3 alignment as its base defense, but as Rosemeyer said, the team will have to adjust when teams try to spread them out. Person isn’t big, but his quickness will be an asset at nose guard. Chovan can play that spot too. Marion moves out to end after playing tackle last year in 11-man and Boie is the other end.
While speed and getting athletes the ball with room to run is key in the eightman game, Boie said it’s still going to be physical.
“From the tackling drill we had the other day, there were some younger kids putting on some good hits,” he said. “So I have a feeling no matter who’s in there, there are going to be some pads popping.”
Krizan returns to a middle linebacker spot after leading the Pirates with 108 total tackles in 2019. Outside, Keepers and Grady Kroeplin will get the most time. Keepers figures to move to defensive end in certain situations. Kade Kroeplin holds down a safety spot after earning first-team All-CloverWood honors at defensive back in 2019. Ustianowski is set to start in the backfield, while Wininger and Hecker will get time too. Duellman adds secondary depth.
Bertsinger, Wisocky and Caleb Marion add depth at defensive end. Marion could fill in at outside linebacker too.
Rosemeyer said there’s a lot to learn about Gilman’s new conference rivals. Phillips is coming off an 8-1 year. Bruce and Alma Center Lincoln made the playoffs. New Auburn had size that could give some teams trouble at the line of scrimmage. Of the teams he’s seen film of from last weekend, Rosemeyer said Mc-Donell Central is the team that jumped out to him.
Of course, this year, the goal for all teams is to safely get through a full season.
“I was just worried we weren’t going to have football,” Kade Kroeplin said. “I didn’t think we were.”
“Honestly, putting that helmet on (the first day of practice) felt amazing,” Boie said. “Knowing that we’re able to play and be with our friends again and playing the sport we love. There’s nothing better.”
For fans without tickets to home games, those contests are being live streamed on the Gilman Pirates You Tube channel. Updated links will be available on the district web site, www. gilman.k12.wi.us.