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The Lakeland College football program hopes to shrug off a disappointing 2010, and will fill the gaps left by the loss of some familiar names with a mix of talented veterans and newcomers.
Fifth-year head coach Kevin Doherty believes the Muskies have the talent to be among the top team in the conference as Lakeland looks to improve from its fifth-place finish in the Northern Athletics Conference a year ago. Lakeland was 3-4 in the NAC, 4-6 overall.
The Muskies will have eight defensive players making their first collegiate start against Carroll College, as well as a very young offense. That lack of experience netted Lakeland a sixth-place pick in the 2011 NAC coaches' pre-season poll.
The Muskies return three starters from a unit that averaged 23.9 points and 293.9 yards per game last season.
Sophomore quarterback Dylan Van Straten (Shiocton, Wis.), a transfer from St. Norbert College, has solidified himself as the starter after a camp-long competition.
"Dylan has done an excellent job at studying the playbook and understanding the offense," said Doherty. "We are excited for Dylan and the progress he has made. He has a good pocket presence and is constantly improving."
Van Straten will be backed up by two freshmen, Dylan Kelly (Appleton, Wis.) and Matt Armstrong (Santa Cruz, Calif.). The coaching staff is pleased with the development they've seen at the quarterback position and are comfortable with whoever is under center.
Freshman Tarrel Jackson (Detroit, Mich.) will lead a talented group of running backs as the Muskies look to solidify their rushing attack. Senior Adam Miller (Marion, Wis.) is ready to make solid contributions after recovering from an ankle injury that forced him to miss the final seven games last season.
"It's unfortunate that we can't play them all," said Doherty about his running backs. "Watching this group in practice, they are all really good running backs. This may be the best group of backs that I've had in my five years here."
Freshman Kendrick Burks (Pontiac, Mich.) and sophomore Erik Lucht (Green Leaf, Wis.) will also see time in the backfield this season. "They are both quality running backs and are capable of doing good things with the ball," Doherty said. "It's imperative to have good depth at running back these days because you have injuries, guys get worn down and you need to have a productive backfield."
At fullback, sophomores Joey Lehto (Bartlett, Ill.) and Deric Lightle (Elkhart Lake, Wis.) will be seeing a bulk of the playing time. "Each one has done an excellent job in camp and I feel comfortable no matter who is on the field," Doherty said. "They need to keep working hard and they'll get their time."
At wide receiver, the Muskies are looking for new receivers to step up after the departure of senior All-NAC performer Robert Flores. Junior Logan Hughley (Sheboygan, Wis.) will play the role of "go-to" receiver as he is the most experienced returner. Also starting will be senior Justin Groeneveld (Kingsford, Mich.), a transfer from Saginaw Valley State.
Junior Justin Laack (Sheboygan Falls, Wis.) and sophomores Chis Jaskulski (Greenfield, Wis.), Aaron Ash (Sturgeon Bay, Wis.) and Quinton Goins (Milwaukee, Wis.) have all had a good preseason and will all get a chance to play. "This is a really solid receiving core," said Doherty. "I'm not sure that we have that 'big play' receiver like Flores, but we have several solid pass catchers who want to win."
At tight end, senior Eric Zuelsdorf (Cedar Grove, Wis.) will be the starter, with senior Alex Traylor (Chicago, Ill.) providing quality depth.
On the offensive line, the Muskies have seven linemen battling for five spots and everyone has been getting repetitions in the preseason. Senior Jaryn LaBine (Crandon, Wis.), sophomores Sam Spaeth (Appleton, Wis.), Joe Ciha (New Franken, Wis.), Jeremy Elliott (Deerfield, Wis.), John Vercauteren (Baileys Harbor, Wis.) and freshmen Andy Crivellone (Oak Lawn, Ill.) and AJ Dollinger (Green Bay, Wis.) are all battling to start.
"We are looking to find five guys that can all play together and open up some holes," said Doherty. "The key is health. We need to find five guys that can stay healthy and build some chemistry and solidify our front line."
The defense must replace four players who started at least two years. A trio of returning All-NAC players - junior Bruce Romagnoli (Iron Mountain, Mich.) and seniors Jason Bruggink (Plymouth, Wis.) and Tony Faller (Oostburg, Wis.) - will lead the way.
At cornerback this season, the Muskies must fill the holes left by key contributors Keith Woodson and Isaiah Calhoun. Freshmen Brandon Young (Milwaukee, Wis.) and Ben Manske (Neenah, Wis.) will need to make some big contributions as they learn on the fly.
"We are confident in our young guys' ability to make plays and play man coverage," said defensive coordinator Colin Bruton. "Pete Lawlor will also see some time in the secondary. Those three guys are all interchangeable and should be able to do a solid job on the outside this season.
Faller will be the strong safety after leading the team in tackles last season. He has been a four-year starter and is the team's senior captain. Playing the free safety position will be either freshman Kyle Mortensen (Shawano, Wis.) or junior Evan Dieringer (Germantown, Wis.)
"Faller is such a great talent," said Bruton. "He is a great leader and has started all 31 games of his career. He plays with unmatched passion and intensity that just sets him apart from everyone else."
Sophomore Cody Lemke (Kewaskum, Wis.) will start as the nickel back in the Muskies' 3-3-5 scheme.
The Muskies will look to Romagnoli to remain consistent and be a playmaker. Last season he missed the first three games and still managed to be second on the team in tackles. "He gets better when the lights are on and just finds that extra gear," said Bruton.
The breakout star in camp this season has been sophomore linebacker Dhondup Tsering (Madison, Wis.) The coaches expect him to make the jump from junior varsity to varsity and have a big year.
Bruggink will anchor the defensive line, and he's surrounded by sophomores Tyler Hattamer (Gwinn, Mich.) and Matt Hill (Iron River, Mich.) After a breakout year from Bruggink last season, the Muskies need him to maintain that level and have the young guys step up. "The key this season is going to be getting that inside push and getting to the quarterback," said Bruton. "I believe that we have a solid line and we will wreak havoc this season in the trenches."
The Muskies expect continued excellent play on special teams. With the departure of four-year kicker/punter Nic Horstmeier, Zuelsdorf becomes the punter with Faller taking over the other kicking duties. The kick returner role is wide open, with Laack, Ash, Jackson, Burks and Faller all in line to receive kicks and punts this season.
The Muskies open with a tough slate of non-conference opponents. The season opener is against Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., the second consecutive year the Muskies have opened against Carroll. Lakeland lost 35-21 last season.
In week two, the Muskies travel to Kenosha, Wis. for their annual rivalry game against Carthage College on Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. Carthage leads the series 14-7, beating the Muskies, 35-34, in a wild overtime game at Taylor Field last season. After a bye week, Lakeland closes out its non-conference schedule with its home opener against Hope College on Sept. 24 at noon.
"We always have great games with Carthage," said Doherty. "It's a great rivalry for us and a very physical and competitive game. It's always a fan favorite with the high-scoring offenses and the excitement - it's just an awesome atmosphere for the guys. We have a very challenging non-conference slate against three quality programs, but I feel it will help prepare us for our conference schedule."
Lakeland opens its NAC schedule at home against Aurora University on Oct. 1 and has an Oct. 15 homecoming date with Wisconsin Lutheran College. The Muskies finish the season on the road with the Cheese Bowl against rival Concordia, Wis., on Nov. 12.
"People are always anxious to talk about the Cheese Bowl and the hype and anticipation around the game," said Doherty. "However, we need to take it a game at a time, and we'll discuss that game when it gets here. The guys are reminded of it every day with the signs in the locker room and the trophy in the case. But that game means nothing if we don't take care of our business early in the season."
To see a video of Doherty's thoughts on his young team and preparing for a tough non-conference schedule, click here.