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Youth and experience don't often go together, but they are fitting in describing the 2012 Lakeland College football team.
The Muskies 93-man roster entering the season includes 67 freshmen and sophomores (41 freshmen and 26 sophomores), and many will have to contribute. At the same time, Lakeland returns 14 starters from a season ago, meaning a number of the young players have already received significant college experience.
Lakeland is coming off a 4-6 overall record last year that included a 4-3 mark in the Northern Athletics Conference. The Muskies finished in a tie with Concordia, Wis., for fourth in the NAC, losing to the Falcons, 28-23, in the Cheese Bowl, but defeating third-place finisher Wisconsin Lutheran, giving the Warriors one of their two losses in NAC play.
Three First Team All-NAC selections are among those who completed their eligibility, including wide receiver Justin Groeneveld, defensive end Jason Bruggink and safety Tony Faller. Groeneveld was one of the dominant receivers in the conference last year, Faller completed a stellar career by playing in the All-American Bowl postseason all-star game and Bruggink was a force in opponents' backfields with seven tackles for loss. However, sixth-year Head Coach Kevin Doherty is pleased with his team for 2012 and is looking forward to watching the youngsters grow up.
"We're very happy with the talent we have; we have a very talented football team," Doherty said. "Some of that talent is young, and the challenge is going to be how our young talent stacks up versus other teams' experience and talent. Is our young talent going to compensate for their experience?
"(But) we're happy with where we're at from day one of practice. We've got to stay healthy, but we do have depth now compared to years past when we haven't had quality depth."
The Muskie offense begins with returning signal caller Dylan Van Straten (Shiocton, Wis.). The dual threat junior started all 10 games last year as a sophomore and threw for 1,347 yards and 11 touchdowns, and also led the team in rushing with 427 yards and five touchdowns. He is backed up by very capable sophomore Dylan Kelly (So.-Appleton, Wis.), who saw light action in five games last year. Doherty said Kelly has shown great improvement from his freshman year.
The backfield returns a pair of starters in tailback Kendrick Burks (So.-Pontiac, Mich.) and fullback Deric Lightle (Jr.-Elkhart Lake, Wis.). Burks was second on the team with 416 yards and three touchdowns rushing as a freshman. Behind him are sophomores Broc Lawry (Ishpeming, Mich.) and Cullin Kowalczyk (Cecil, Wis.), both of who saw limited carries as freshmen, as well as freshmen Alexander Newman (Beach Park, Ill.), Bryan Rhode (Reeseville, Wis.) and Marvin Warfield (North Chicago, Ill.). At the fullback spot, Lightle and Joey Lehto (Sr.-Bartlett, Ill.) will split time primarily blocking for the tailbacks with occasional carries to keep the defense honest.
"We're extremely deep at tailback; I'm comfortable with any of those six players," Doherty said. "Lightle and Lehto are very equal in ability at fullback, both are valuable to incorporate into the offense."
Justin Laack (Sr.-Sheboygan Falls, Wis.) is the leading returning receiver for Lakeland and leads the wideout group. Laack caught 11 passes for 135 yards last year, while Chris Jaskulski (Jr.-Greenfield, Wis.) also returns after catching 11 passes for 112 yards in 2011. Returnees Aaron Ash (Sr.-Sturgeon Bay, Wis.) and Wyatt Reinke (So.-Bonduel, Wis.) also figure into the mix, and a talented group of freshmen includes Norman Grinstead (Taylor, Mich.) and Richard Micheaux (Taylor, Mich.), former teammates at Taylor Truman High School. The tight end position also includes a pair of newcomers in Sam Farley (Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.), a sophomore moving from linebacker, and freshman Steven Lewis (Detroit, Mich.), who at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, brings size to the position.
Four starters return on the Muskie offensive line. Senior John Ciha (New Franken, Wis.) is the veteran of the group as a two-year starter, while sophomore Andy Crivellone (Oak Lawn, Ill.) was named honorable mention all-conference as a freshman. Sam Spaeth (Jr.-Appleton, Wis.) started all 10 games last year in his second year with the program and A. J. Dollinger (So.-Green Bay, Wis.) started at the end of last season as a freshman. Among those competing for the fifth spot on the line will be sophomore Kurt Schneider (Green Bay, Wis.), senior Kirk Gagnon (Oconto Falls, Wis.), as well as several newcomers.
The defense was a strength last year and this year is led by senior linebacker Bruce Romagnoli (Iron Mountain, Mich.). Romagnoli led the squad last year with 95 tackles, including 13.5 for loss, and was named First Team All-NAC. Expectations are high for a huge senior season for Romagnoli, who has appeared on several preseason All-American teams heading into 2012.
Also returning at linebacker is Tyler Oslund (Jr.-Ishpeming, Mich.), who also was a productive starter last year with 41 tackles including 4.5 tackles for loss. Junior Ryan Kaszuba (Oshkosh, Wis.) returns from injury in 2011, but was a starter as a freshman, while other key players at the position will be juniors Erik Lucht (Greenleaf, Wis.) and Noah Ross (Sheboygan, Wis.) and freshman Romain Johnson (Pontiac, Mich.).
Doherty is excited about a defensive line that includes "nine or ten players who can play for us." T.J. Kinjerski (Sr.-Mishicot, Wis.) was named Second Team All-NAC last year and, like Romagnoli, also has picked up some preseason accolades. He'll anchor a group that includes returning starter Tyler Hattamer (Jr.-Gwinn, Mich.) and returnees Deron Thomas-Key (Sr.-Sheboygan, Wis.), Matt Hill (Jr.-Iron River, Mich.) and Trevor Tanck (So.-Baileys Harbor, Wis.).
The defensive backfield returns three of four starters and as much experience as any position on the roster. Junior Cody Lemke (Kewaskum, Wis.) is the second-leading returning tackler from last season (43 tackles) and as a sophomore was named honorable mention all-conference. He is joined by senior Evan Dieringer (Germantown, Wis.) and junior Ben Manske (Neenah, Wis.), who combined for 77 tackles last year. Manske also ranked third on the team with seven passes broken up. Those three are joined by Patrick Johnson (So.-Pontiac, Mich.) as well as Yaphay Harvey (So.-Milwaukee, Wis.) and Ramone Taylor (So.-Clinton, Mich.) as players who all were contributors as reserves as freshmen.
Kicking chores will be contested between freshmen William Yelverton (Oconomowoc, Wis.) and Shawn Mueller (Luxemburg, Wis.), who will share kickoff, placekicking and punting duties. Laack, Burks and Ash are the team's leading return men coming back from last season for punts and kickoffs.
The Muskies face a solid non-conference schedule but play two of the three games at home. Lakeland opens at home against Carroll on Sept. 1 and also hosts Kalamazoo before going on the road to face traditional non-conference rival Carthage. The Muskies then hit the road for a tough conference opener at Wisconsin Lutheran before coming home for Homecoming against Rockford. Later home games include the Cheese Bowl against Concordia Wisconsin as well as closing out the season against defending NAC co-champions Concordia Chicago and Benedictine, the latter at home in the season finale.
Doherty is emphasizing the importance of a good start in non-conference play before facing a conference schedule that will include no easy touches. He expects the NAC race to be similar to last year, when the top five teams were separated by two games.
"We want to win the non-conference season, and we treat those games with importance because they set the tone for the rest of the year," Doherty said. "The conference has a lot of parity, anybody can beat anyone. We will be challenged with big games every week, from the opener (Wisconsin Lutheran) right into to Homecoming, then to the Cheese Bowl, then Aurora (Doherty's alma mater) before finishing with last year's co-champions."