WABASSO - The Wabasso football program and its loyal fans have grown used to winning more than losing over the years, but in 2012 the Rabbits struck an unwanted balance between the two.
A .500 season is fine for many teams, and it wasn't a disappointing year for Wabasso since the squad was working in several new players. But with some talented veterans coming back and a crop of young players ready to break out, .500 is a figure the Rabbits hope to avoid in 2013.
"If that's as bad as it ever gets, that's not too bad," Wabasso head coach Joe Kemp said. "We haven't been below .500 since I've been coaching, so that's something, I guess, to hang your hat on. We always shoot for something better than that and I think we have enough returners this year to improve on that."
Photo by Matt Dahlseid
Wabasso senior quarterback Neil Eichten drops back to throw a pass as the team runs through plays during practice Wednesday in Wabasso. Eichten completed 84 of 151 passes for 881 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012.
Knowing how Wabasso fans pack around the field for home games to support the team, the returning Rabbits are also looking for something better than last year's 5-5 record. Senior defensive end Matt Zeug said he's hoping to give the fans a couple things to look forward to this year. Along with helping his team to an improved record, he is also shooting for breaking the school's single-season sacks record after falling a couple shy last year with 12.
"It (fuels you) knowing that the whole community will be at the game every Friday night when we have a home game," Zeug said. "When everyone shows up and cheers us on, it really pushes us harder."
Zeug and fellow senior Alex Schroepfer give the Rabbits an imposing presence on the line. Zeug stands 6-foot-3, and Schroepfer placed fifth at the state wrestling tournament at 285 pounds.
Schroepfer said he doesn't have many concerns about how the Rabbits will perform up front.
"We'll maybe have a few people missing, but I think it's looking pretty good right now," he said.
A key loss for the Rabbits coming into the season is Blake Altermatt, who started at running back for Wabasso the last two seasons and piled up 1,118 yards on 219 carries in Wabasso's run-heavy offense last season. Tanner Rohlik, the team's next-best rusher from 2012 who had almost 400 yards, is also gone.
With Zeug and Schroepfer helping to clear the way, a new stable of backs hopes to leave their mark. Tanner Bock got some touches last year and will likely get most of the carries this season. Speedy back TJ Fulton and Caleb Kemp will also see time in the backfield.
Senior quarterback Neil Eichten hasn't been asked to throw a lot during his career, but said he would like the opportunity to improve on his numbers from last year when he threw for 881 yards and eight touchdowns with 17 interceptions.
Like many quarterbacks, Eichten is a vocal leader on the team and wants to set a good example during his senior season.
"All the little kids look up to me and I try to act like a grown man, try to get all of them to listen," Eichten said. "I try to help the kids that don't know much and help them read the coverages and everything."
The Rabbits have five returning starters on both sides of the ball. With that experience back, Eichten said his goal is to see Wabasso make the section final like it did in 2011 when it narrowly missed out on a trip to state with a 22-18 loss to Adrian.
To get back to that point, Kemp said the start of the season will be key. Though he's confident in his returning players, he thinks the younger Rabbits will need to gain confidence in themselves by seeing success early on.
"We're going to have some young kids filling a lot of spots, some new kids, and they're going to have to gain confidence," Kemp said. "If that confidence comes early in the year, I think we'll see a lot of good things as the season progresses. I wouldn't say we're short on talent by any means, it's just that confidence coming up to the next level because the game speed is going to change."