As the Manitowoc Lincoln football team gathered around head coach John Dixon prior to last week’s four-team scrimmage at Ron Rubick Municipal Field, his message was simple.
“We are the defending Fox River Classic Conference champs. We have a reputation. We have a standard to uphold,” Dixon said.
The mission to repeat as conference champions and maintain its reputation as a top football program starts today for Lincoln. The Ships open up their season on the road against Green Bay Southwest, a team they defeated 27-7 at home last year in just the second game of what became one of the school’s most historic seasons ever.
But this is not last year’s squad which, after going 9-0 overall and 8-0 in conference in the regular season, fell in the second round of the WIAA Division I playoffs in a 27-24 overtime home loss to Sussex Hamilton. Gone are 27 seniors, including six All-FRCC first-team selections, four second-team selections and three honorable mentions. That includes starting quarterback and first-team selection Tanner Dixon as well as defensive player of the year and linebacker/defensive back of the year Zach Pethan.
“I guess our big issue this year is to replace the 27 seniors that graduated last year,” Dixon said. “I think that in many regards we’ve done that. We’ve found people to fill holes.”
However, the Ships still lack the depth and experience of last year’s squad. That didn’t appear to be an issue early on during Lincoln’s scrimmages against West Bend West and Port Washington though. First-year senior quarterback Nick Schroeder made several touchdown passes of more than 30 yards when facing West, with the defense not allowing a single play to go more than 10 yards.
In the Ships’ second scrimmage, the defense once again showed its potency while this time Ships junior running backs Drew Dixon and Ethan Just broke several long runs, many of them coming after initially being wrapped up at the line of scrimmage by three or four defenders.
But against Neenah in its final scrimmage, Lincoln allowed several long scoring runs and didn’t appear to be firing on all cylinders toward the end. Dixon said he attributed the mistakes to overall fatigue and other correctable issues that would be taken care of leading up to tonight’s game.
Speaking about training camp overall, Dixon said he was pleased with the progress his team made. Overall, though, the team will need to remain healthy if it is to match last year’s success.
“Last year we had some terrible, terrible injuries and we were able to overcome that because we had 27 seniors and had tremendous depth. … What we don’t have right now is depth. I would say our strength is that we are pretty athletic and we have a great group of kids who have worked very hard,” Dixon said. “I think we are on the right track. … I’d say we’re probably close to as athletic as we were at some positions last year, but we just don’t have the same depth.”
Schroeder, for one, isn’t concerned about the team having to replace such a large senior class. While he acknowledged that his senior class had much less playing time as juniors than last year’s seniors had as juniors, he feels the offensive line will surprise people with its skill set while the defense he thinks will once again be strong.
“As far as talent, I think if we pick it up, if everyone steps up, we will be fine. … I think if we combine as a unit and work hard in practice and conditioning we will be very successful,” Schroeder said. “We need to go into every game like we can win it. Every team we play this year we have a chance against. We should go into every game thinking that. We can’t take any team lightly and we can’t go into any games thinking the other team’s too good. Basically just take one game at a time.”
Dixon said his team has its sights on being at the top of the conference standings and making the playoffs, a goal that should be realistic and achievable for the group despite only facing three opponents who had sub-.500 conference records last season.
“I think we will be competitive and I hope we’ll get better every week. With this group, to be honest, there are a lot of unknowns,” Dixon said. “As long as we keep making improvements hopefully we will be in the mix in the conference race and get into the playoffs. We have to stay healthy and get better every week.”