EDEN VALLEY – It might seem like a bit of a rash decision on the surface, but John Salzl enlisted in the Army Reserves this summer to get in shape for football.
There were other considerations, of course. He’s from a family with military connections. But the upside for Eden Valley-Watkins is that he comes into the fall in the best shape of his life as the Eagles try to improve upon a 5-5 2014 season.
“Mostly, I have family in the military,” said Salzl, a 5-foot-7, 182-pound senior running back and linebacker. “But it really has helped my conditioning for football.”
The Eagles return six starters on offense and four on defense. If there’s one phrase that describes them, it’s a lot like Salzl: small, solid and quick.
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“We’re pretty quick,” Eden Valley-Watkins head coach Jon Thielen said.
One of those quick guys is Deshaun James, like Salzl, a smallish senior running back listed at 5-foot-8 and 162 pounds. He hopes to play football in college.
Both James and Salzl have been key members of the varsity team since ninth grade.
“This is our fourth year together,” James said. “I remember our first game freshman year.
“We didn’t have a lot of depth. Things were a little shaky.”
They’ll be a lot more stable for the home opener at 11 a.m. Saturday at Benson. One reason for that is quarterback Reese Jansen (6-0, 165, jr.).
Jansen, head girls basketball coach Tom Jansen’s son, passed for 2,208 yards and 26 touchdowns with four interceptions last season. He helped lead the Eagles to the Gustavus Adolphus 7-on-7 camp title for the second year in a row with victories over Redwood Valley, St. Peter and Tri-City United.
“It’s a great place to start,” Thielen said of having his quarterback return.
James is an excellent receiver, and junior Greg Lux (6-4, 158, jr.) returns. Only two linemen are back: juniors Nathan Utecht (6-1, 184) and Isaac Stommes (5-10, 196).
The rest of the line is similarly sized: tight end Jacob Streit (6-4, 215, jr.), Andrew Bautch (6-0, 209, so.), Corey Mathies (5-11, 204, sr.) and Brad Zimmerman (6-0, 185, sr.) on offense with Tony Dejuliannie (6-1, 174, sr.) on defense.
Their lack of size means quickness will be the key.
“Stopping the run is going to be key,” Jansen said. “Teams like Pierz and Maple Lake really run the ball well and we’ve got to slow that down.”
Salzl leads the linebacking crew that also includes Travis Thielen (5-10, 174, sr.) and seniors Logan Linn (5-10, 175, sr.) and Jordan Unterberger (5-10, 158, sr.).
With size like that, the key for the defense is quickness.
“And execution,” said James, who returns at defensive back.
Besides James, the secondary will be young, but athletic: Matt Schindler (5-8, 150, so.), Jamison Kuechle (5-10, 154, so) and Markell York-Ramirez (6-0, 166, jr.).
“I think we have a real good opportunity to go to state this year,” James said.
Follow Tom Elliott on Twitter @sctimestom or call 259-3661.