Last season, the Winneconne Wolves football team came into the season picked near the bottom of the Eastern Valley Conference.
Undaunted, the Wolves rattled off a 6-2 to regular season to qualify for the WIAA Division 4 playoffs and were a hand away from beating Marshall and advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
This season, having graduated a solid class of seniors last year, the same people who picked the Wolves near the bottom last year are doing the same this season.
The Wolves don’t like being slighted, and those who are returning — a healthy number with playoff experience from last year — know that it’s their chance to prove those people wrong. Again.
“We are definitely being overlooked again,” quarterback Mitchel Fenrich said. “But that’s all right with us.”
Winneconne coach Clint Peters doesn’t envy the rest of the conference who has to face a mad Wolves team looking to exceed everyone’s expectations but their own for the second straight year.
In fact, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We kind of like it that way, to be honest,” Peters said. “We are still a senior-dominated team this year and I don’t know if anyone realizes that.
“It took more than just Dylan (Hecker) to move the ball up and down the field last year.”
A big hole
Speaking of Hecker, one of the main challenges for the Wolves this season is replacing the do-it-all quarterback and linebacker.
On offense, Hecker accounted for 1,324 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground to go along with 1,039 yards through the air and eight more touchdowns to garner second-team all-conference honors at quarterback.
On defense, Hecker was named EVC Defensive Player of the Year.
Definitely big shoes to fill.
“I don’t think you can replace him,” Peters said. “What you can do is run a different type of offense and get the ball in the hands of our kids who are our exciting players.”
The Wolves plan to do that with a balanced attack, using multiple options so teams can’t key on one player like they were able to with Hecker last season.
“It’s going to be more of a team thing,” senior lineman Brett Kramer said. “A lot of different players getting the ball.”
Fenrich will fill Hecker’s spot at quarterback, while the Wolves will look to running back Alex Ford, who will also take Hecker’s spot at linebacker, coming off a third-team all-EVC selection at the position last year, and wide receiver Riley Kallas to make the big splashes on offense, along with a host of other skill position players eager to get in on the action.
Winneconne hopes that a combination of players can make up the void left by Hecker.
“We still have a ton of talent to use,” Fenrich said. “We still have a lot of talent returning, a lot of speed.”
In the trenches
One thing that should help the Wolves on offense and defense is their line play.
Winneconne boasts plenty of guys up front that can get the job done.
“I honestly believe I have the biggest and strongest offensive and defensive lines in the conference,” Peters said.
Peters looks for both those areas to be a big part of the Wolves success this season, led by seniors like Kramer, who was a second-team all-conference offensive tackle last season, and Cooper Goss.
He fully expects his lineman to dominate the trenches.
“Just with the size of the kids and how hard they’ve worked in the summer, that’s going to be our strength,” Peters said. “I certainly expect success.”
Knowing what to expect
It helps having players on your team who have big game experience, who have been through a grind of a regular season and know what it takes to get to the postseason and farther.
Well, that’s exactly what Winneconne has. Plenty of experience. 15 seniors worth of experience, to be exact.
“Last year gave us the experience we need for this year,” Goss said. “We know what we need to do.”
The Wolves can ride that experience into this season.
They know how things work on both sides of the ball. They know how each other works.
Now it’s time to put it all back together and saddle up for another ride.
“We just have to push ourselves 10 times harder than we did last year,” Ford said. “We know how tough it was and we are ready to come back out even stronger.”
The Wolves’ were practically in the second round of the playoffs until a Marshall defender smacked the ball out of Winneconne receiver’s hands on a two-point conversion attempt with no time on the clock in Winneconne’s 34-33 loss last year.
Those returning feel that they left something on the table that night. Something special.
And now they are fighting to get back to that point and beyond.
“We got the taste of success last year,” Kramer said. “We got bit by the bug to keep working hard to do the same thing (this year) and hopefully, get even farther.”
Peters and the Wolves sure won’t be surprised.
“Playoffs are always our number one goal,” he said. “We also want to take another step in the playoffs when we get there. Anything is possible.”