Rice Lake, Bloomer (WQOW) — After successful 2017 campaigns, both Bloomer and Rice Lake are looking for big years in 2018.
For the Warriors, the cliche about the slate being wiped clean once the playoffs arrive definitely held true. Rice Lake finished third in the Big Rivers Conference, but then ran off five straight postseason wins to claim the WIAA Division 3 state title. The closest playoff margin for the Warriors was 21 points.
Another benefit of making a long postseason run was the extra game time, and extra practice time. Rice Lake does return five starters on each side of the ball, along with another group of guys who didn’t start, but got valuable reps along the way.
"We had a very experienced secondary, and second level on defense last year. Offense, it was line of scrimmage and perimeter players. So those are where there’s a changing of the guard and where our focus is," says Warriors head coach Dan Hill. "Maybe five guys on each side of the ball that started last year, but there’s another five or so that got significant experience last year, so we feel like we’re coming into the season with a pretty good, experienced team."
The Warriors will need to find new starters in the defensive secondary, as well as on the offensive line and on the perimeter. Power backs Billy Brown and Brandon Sutton have both graduated, but quarterback Peyton Buckley does return for his senior season. Last year was his first as the starting QB, and he rushed for 615 yards and threw for 965 yards.
"I feel comfortable with it," Buckley says about being a second year starter, "just kind of gotta do what I’m supposed to, not get too ahead of myself, not try to make too much happen, do what I’m supposed to do."
Also returning in the backfield are DeAirus and Marquez Clerveaux, both of whom are standout track athletes.
"I think we’ve got some pretty skilled backs this year," says Buckley, "obviously, we lost a lot but I think we’ve got some speed coming back and I think we should be able to attack edges and get to the sidelines and hopefully break some big runs."
Players know its a brand-new season, but they do like the energy early on at practice.
"We have very intense practices that we just push each other and encourage each other," says senior offensive tackle/defensive tackle/linebacker Tony Lai, "and the younger guys, we’re just teaching them what to do, and they’re getting it, they’re starting to get it, and we’ve seen some improvement over the last two weeks."
Rice Lake kicks off the season on Friday, August 17, when the Warriors host Medford.
In Bloomer, the Blackhawks are coming off a Heart O’North Conference championship, and a trip to Level 3 of the Division 4 playoffs. Head coach John Post has to replace a solid senior class, led by two-way lineman Payton Dachel, but Bloomer does return nine starters on each side of the ball. The Blackhawks have their eyes set on making the program’s first ever trip to Camp Randall Stadium.
"Every year, of course that is the goal," says Post, "there’s years where you know, gosh ,that’s not going to happen probably, but this team has got a lot of potential. We’ll see as the year progresses, but you just can’t predict it."
Post also appreciates this group’s camaraderie. "They understand things very well, they communicate well, they play well together as a team. And we have a lot of nice options with kids with a couple years experience."
One of the returning players the Blackhawks will rely on in quarterback/defensive back Zach Ruf, who had a hand in 30 of Bloomer’s touchdowns last season. His cousin, Caleb, returns at running back.
"We feel pretty good about our offense," says Caleb Ruf, "we kept most of our stuff from last year, so it was nice to jump in and know what we are doing, a lot of guys returning. So we’re just right back into the groove, and we can add from where we were last year."
"We hope to keep the defense guessing," says Zach Ruf, "even with some of our skill guys we can pound the rock up the middle or we can sweep, and we can also throw the ball, (the) pigskin up in the air. I think we can be the best offense around in the area really, we have the tools we’ve just got to put it together."
Bloomer begins the season on Friday, August 17, when the Blackhawks host Somerset.