Hawks see conference change as fresh start
A new-look offense, a new-look defense, a new conference and a new-found confidence that comes with experience. Add those to the simple relief that the Hawks are even playing football this fall, and you get a Rib Lake-Prentice squad that is eager to put their winless 2019 season in the rearview mirror.
While many of the faces remain the same in Hawks’ camp, the changes have everyone energized as week one in the delayed and condensed 2020 season finally arrives when the team hosts Unity in Rib Lake Friday at 7 p.m.
“It’s like a complete fresh start,” senior lineman Hawks ready for conference switch, believe they’ll be better
Logan Sarkkinen said during the team’s Sept. 16 practice. “As long as everyone keeps that laser focus, I look forward to the season. We know what it feels like to have a season like we did last year, we don’t want it to happen again.
“I think this year we’re going to be a lot more motivated because we’re going to be playing every game like it’s our last,” senior Brock Thiede said. “You never know if it’s going to be or not.”
Thiede has an idea what that feeling is like, having missed all of last year with shoulder problems. His return is just one of the reasons the Hawks are confident this year will be better.
For the first time, the Hawks will compete in a revamped Lakeland Conference that was created by a statewide conference realignment process that was completed two years ago. The changes will create some long road trips, but it puts the Hawks in a league where they feel they can be competitive. It certainly helps when monsters like Stratford and Edgar are no longer in the picture.
“It wasn’t fun losing 70-0,” senior lineman Carter Scheithauer said.
“Yeah, getting curb stomped on those Friday nights was never real enjoyable,” Sarkkinen added.
Jonah Campbell, the team’s third-year co-head coach from the Rib Lake side of the co-op said there definitely is an upbeat attitude so far in practice, which started Sept. 8, over a month later than normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Greg Smith, an assistant on the coaching staff the past several years, is the new co-head coach from the Prentice side this year, replacing Chuck Knaack.
“When we’re talking and putting stuff in they’re listening and they’re asking questions,” Campbell said Tuesday. “Last year the offensive line did that quite a bit and it’s kind of the same guys we have now, they’re the leaders. But we’ve seen it pretty much across the board that guys are eager to figure it out, they’re asking the questions, making sure that they got it right. I think they’re just excited to have something new.”
Last year’s struggles led the coaching staff to make scheme changes on both sides of the ball. The goal, both offensively and defensively, was to simplify things for the players, hopefully allowing them to play faster and react faster to things they’re seeing on the field.
Offensively, that has resulted in moving away from the triple-option and more toward a straight forward ground-andpound approach.
“The option required a lot of thinking,” Campbell said. “On the line, it was a lot of who do I block, who don’t I block. For the quarterback, it was one, get the read right. Then two, either make the pitch or make a clean handoff and all of that stuff. There were just a lot more things that could arise each play because the read key gets blocked, the quarterback has to know how to adjust to that and not be stuck on the railroad so to speak.
“The biggest thing is your linemen have to know what to do because that’s where it starts,” he added. “This allows them to quickly process the play so when they get to the line they’re not thinking or trying to decipher who to block. It’s pretty straightforward each play, how to block, where to block and who to block rather than the option offense.”
So far, the players like it.
“I think the smashmouth approach will help us get quick yards,” Thiede said.
Bringing back four starting offensive linemen won’t hurt either. Senior Bud Schreiner returns at center, flanked by Sarkkinen and Scheithauer as well as junior Ty Annala. The fifth starter is newcomer Grant Craavack of Prentice, who has the size to fit right into the spot vacated by the graduated Clayton Lyons.
Junior Owen Nowak starts the year as a tight end. At the skill positions, sophomore quarterback Michael Borchardt will get the opening-night nod at quarterback, while speedy junior Sam Gumz is the featured running back, Thiede is the fullback and juniors Michael Quednow and Trey Klemann are among the top receivers. Ashton Keiser, who is in his fourth year with the varsity, figures to get the ball in his hands in various ways during the season as well. Junior Jordan Yanko and sophomore newcomer Dominick Classen may figure into the backfield rotation as well. “We really start the play off, so we kinda have to set the tone for how the rest of the play goes each time the ball is snapped,” Scheithauer said of the linemen. “If we hit hard, usually whoever’s running the ball is going to hit hard because the guy’s already blown back.”
Campbell said Thiede is a smart, patient runner, while the team hopes to be able to create creases for Gumz, who has the speed to be a home-run hitter.
Defensively, Campbell said the Hawks are getting away from their 3-5 look of a year ago and going to a 4-4 scheme.
“You have the linebackers working more off of what the defensive line is doing,” he said of the changes. “They work together. Last year it was kind of together but separate. The linebackers and the interior linemen worked together, but the stud linebackers, who were kind of like the fourth and fifth defensive linemen or outside linebackers, they had their own jobs to do that was kind of separate from what the rest of the group was doing. I think this just makes it a lot easier for them to understand where to be.”
Up front, Scheithauer, Craavack, Schreiner and Sarkkinen are the leaders. The linebacking crew includes Thiede, Keiser, Yanko, Nowak and Quednow. Sophomore Ryan Bergman, Klemann and Gumz will start week one in the secondary with Borchardt and Classen mixing in. Players like Johnathan Konrad, Annala and Brandon Heiser figure into the defensive line rotation. Thiede’s return is crucial. He earned All-Marawood honorable mention at linebacker as a sophomore.
“I missed it a lot last year,” he said. “I dreaded all last year just being on the sidelines and not being out there.”
“He’s one of the best linebackers we’ve got and has been for awhile,” Scheithauer said. “He started at linebacker as a freshman.”
“He would show up to every single practice whether he could play or not and he’d watch, he’d learn, he’d do everything with us,” Sarkkinen said.
As for the competition in the new conference, Unity is the defending champion after going 7-0 in league play in 2019 and 9-2 overall. Hurley went 8-3 as an independent and beat the Hawks 53-8 in week eight last year. Grantsburg and Lake Holcombe-Cornell made the playoffs and Webster came up just short. Flambeau’s only win was a forfeit and Ladysmith comes in after struggling last year as the small school in the Heart O’ North Conference.
“I’m thinking it’s a better opportunity for us and the teams in the future,” Thiede said of the switch. “This year might be a little rough getting to know the other teams and learning what they do and how they all play.”
“We just have to adapt to the situation at hand,” Scheithauer said. “Whatever a team throws at us, we give it back to them.”
While the team has just a half-dozen seniors –– lineman Donovan Acker is the sixth –– the junior class played a lot last year. While it was rough at times, the Hawks think that will pay off this year.
“Logan Sarkkinen, Brock Thiede, Carter Scheithauer and Ashton Keiser, those four guys have played a lot, even their freshman year,” Campbell said. “They all touched the field as freshmen. Sark maybe not as much as everyone else, but you’ve got four seniors who pretty much have played all four years, not counting the injury to Brock, so I think you have a lot of confidence and leadership through that. Then the juniors, they had last year as sophomores, which was similar to stepping in as a junior. So they have a year under their belt where they should be able to step up and play like upperclassmen rather than new juniors coming in.