DE PERE – The West De Pere football team was less than three minutes away from reaching the WIAA Division 3 state title game last season.
That 34-31 loss to Rice Lake in a semifinal playoff game, one in which the Phantoms led by 12 points entering the fourth quarter, proved to be a valuable lesson for first-year coach Jack Batten.
Batten thought about that game all offseason. The self-proclaimed control freak realized he needed to trust those around him and be willing to delegate more responsibility to a coaching staff he considers top-notch.
“We lost the game against Rice Lake in the semifinals because instead of making a defensive adjustment, I was calling offensive plays,” said Batten, the longtime defensive coordinator at West De Pere before taking over the head job last season. “All we had to do was make one little tweak, which I would have normally done. It was a coaching assignment mistake that I made.
“We have taken care of that now. I think in any good program, you have to have one guy who runs the ‘O’ and one guy who runs the ‘D.’ Especially on a Friday night. The loss last year was on me.”
The expectations remain high at West De Pere entering this season, and returning to the top of the Bay Conference is the first goal. After winning a record seven straight championships from 2006-12, the Phantoms have gone title-less the last two seasons.
They also have a new look for the most part, including a backfield that will get a makeover with the loss of quarterback Beau Mommaerts and standout running back Dom Conway.
Conway is one of seven first-team all-conference picks that graduated for West De Pere.
Batten hopes there won’t be too many growing pains with several new starters, although there certainly is inexperience at the skill positions.
Nobody likely can replace what Conway did for the Phantoms, but they do have some talent at the running back position with a trio of juniors in Matthew McNabb, Brandon Destache and Kyle Kosobucki.
Kosobucki had success in limited action last season, averaging 4.2 yards on 23 carries in league play. McNabb also contributed on special teams, averaging 21.2 yards on six kickoff returns.
Those are extremely small sample sizes, which is why it’s difficult to know what to expect early on.
But the players are confident things will be just fine.
“Without a doubt,” said senior Alex Jankovich, who is starting on the defensive line after serving as an offensive lineman last season. “Our offensive line is amazing. Our line will be able to get our running backs through.”
It also helps to have a good defense, and the Phantoms have been strong in that department for most of Batten’s tenure. The unit allowed the second-fewest points in the league last season, and that’s not expected to change much in 2015. There will be some difficult tests, including a Week 8 matchup against a Menasha team that is the new king of the conference until proven otherwise.
“It should be pretty interesting,” Jankovich said about a new-look Bay that includes Waupaca, Appleton Xavier, Green Bay East and Green Bay West. “It’s nice that we will have a couple more teams that will have a little more competition, I guess. A lot more traveling around.
“It should be fun.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @scottvenci
West De Pere at a glance
Coach: Jack Batten, second year.
2014 record: 11-2.
Aug. 21 — Seymour
Aug. 28 — at Kingsford (Mich.)
Sept. 4 — at Green Bay West
Sept. 11 — at Green Bay East
Sept. 18 — at Appleton Xavier
Sept. 25 — Waupaca
Oct. 2 — New London
Oct. 9 — Menasha
Oct. 16 — at Shawano