Baseball coaches like to talk about being strong up the middle of the field — catcher, pitcher, shortstop and center field.
Count first-year Tri-County football coach Ron Nelson as a disciple of that belief system.
Considering who the Penguins have returning to man football’s version of up the middle — center, quarterback and running back — Nelson must feel as though he has a wealth of riches at his disposal.
It all starts at center where Tristan LaPorte, a 5-foot-11 student of the game, is a four-year starter. His vast experience should help mold a relatively young line, one that includes 6-2, 275-pound sophomore Cody Eisner, into a cohesive unit relatively quickly.
Things get even better for the rookie coach knowing LaPorte will be snapping the ball to another four-year varsity starter in quarterback Mitch Marinack who might know the playbook better than his coach.
An extension of the coach on the field, according to his new coach, Marinack spent the summer attending college quarterback camps across the state to learn the nuances of the position.
A strong middle wouldn’t be complete without a bruising fullback and Tri-County has one of the best in the area in Chase Knutson (5-11, 220), a “hard-nosed, tough-minded” kid who will be starting on varsity for his fourth season.
“When you look art how a football team is built, you start up the middle with good esperience and strong leadership,” said Nelson, who welcomed 27 players, including eight seniors, to the first day of practice.
“The biggest thing is their experience, these guys know what to expect,” Nelson added. “This senior class is very driven and picking the younger guys up and showing them the way. They know what it takes.”
That sort of senior leadership could be invaluable.
Now don’t get Nelson wrong.
There is a big missing piece to the Penguins’ backfield equation — running back Tyler Schwartzman who finished with a team-high 885 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per carry, and 11 touchdowns — won’t be easy to replace.
While some shoes are tougher to fill than other, Nelson believes juniors Dylan Nigh (5-10, 160) and Justin Ceballos (5-9, 150) have the versatility and talent to help make up for the loss of Schwartzman.
“Tyler was a great football player, but we have to move on from that and in my opinion, we’ll still have a pretty talented backfield with those guys as a combination,” Nelson said. “I think those guys have really been stepping up.”
A strong corps of receivers, featuring junior Brock Akkerman, along with seniors, J.J. Bartels, Aaron Klabunde and Aaron Thompson as well as sophomore Luke Marinack should have take some of the burden off the running game.
First-year defensive coordinator Matt Makaryk will be in charge of turning around a defense that surrendered 26.1 points a game during a 2-6 campaign in 2012, including a 1-6 mark in the Central Wisconsin Conference-10.
A year removed from the WIAA playoffs, Nelson is optimistic the Penguins have what it takes to make it back to the postseason in what should be a highly competitive CWC-10 race.