Raiders kick off season Friday at Minnetonka
Open with two Minnesota road games
“We just got another month of practice,” he said about last season, which didn’t end until the Raiders’ only loss in the state semifinals Nov. 10. “Even if they weren’t starting, our players got another month of drills and another month of practice time and extra team time. With the juniors especially, I think that’s something that hopefully will carry over.”
The Raiders put together the best season in school history last year, going 11-1, winning their first outright Big Rivers Conference title, and coming within one game of playing for a state championship. But Kowles said this is a new season and a new team, but one that’s just as hungry.
“The guys who were part of last year, the juniors, they know what it takes,” he said. “That’s the positive. The negatives are, they have to realize we have to keep doing what we’re doing. It’s a new mountain to climb, and we’re back at the bottom now. We’ve got to start over and take steps week to week. The guys aren’t really talking about last year, but at the same time they know what it takes.”
The climb up that mountain begins this Friday night at perennial Minnesota powerhouse Minnetonka. It continues with another strong Minnesota opponent — Chanhassen — next Friday, Aug. 30, before the Raiders first home game of the season and BRC opener Friday, Sept. 6, against Rice Lake.
Kowles and the Raider coaching staff got a taste of what to expect at last Friday’s scrimmage in Stevens Point.
“It was OK,” Kowles said. “We went back and forth with Appleton North and Stevens Point. It’s always hard to gauge the offense because we were trying to run a script. We weren’t necessarily trying to attack their defense; we were trying to do what we do. But it was nice to get the speed of the game. You can practice all you want against your own team but it’s not like the speed is there until you go against other teams.”
Hudson returns three starters on both sides of the ball, including defensive lineman Jared Johnson, who was named to the Wisconsin Sports Network’s Tim Krumrie Award preseason watch list. The award is presented annually to the state’s top senior defensive lineman.
Also back on defense are lineman Eliot Motu and defensive back and co-captain Miles Lewis. The offense returns starting center Matt Wang, along with wide receiver Alex Herink, another co-captain who missed the first half of last season with a broken collarbone, and tight end Matt Johnson.
“Another two guys who got a lot of time were Hunter Frey and Wade Malecha,” Kowles noted. “Hunter Frey started and played the whole game against Menomonie and River Falls, and Wade Malecha started a couple of games early when (Dan) Loughney was banged up and looked good.”
Malecha and Cal Johnson will serves as this year’s co-captains alongside Lewis and Herink.
Kowles said the competition for the other starting spots has been intense, and pointed to halfback as an example.
“We have five guys battling for one halfback position,” he said. “We gave the guys the opportunity to battle at the scrimmage and we’ll even do it in the first game. We’ve got a lot of battles at certain positions.”
Kowles said he believes the competition is good for the team.
“It’s not always the case, but guys who are fighting for positions with other guys get close, they get that bond, and that really helps each other,” he said.
Kowles said a number of things have jumped out at him during preseason practice.
“Our secondary is doing a nice job, and I feel really good about the D-line,” he said. “We have a good, solid group of receivers and our O-line is doing OK. They really have done a nice job.”
He said there’s still plenty of work to do, however.
“Timing,” he said. “With the pitch and the option, you have to be on time, you have to be fluid. I think once you get into starting lineups it simplifies. You felt that in the scrimmage. A little behind or a little out in front makes a difference. But that will come.”
Kowles said he realizes the Raiders will have a target on their back this season after winning the BRC title and making the state semifinals a year ago.
“It’s the same with all teams who have some success — people want to beat you — there’s no question about it,” he said. “When we came in we said, what do we have to do to beat Menomonie and Chippewa Falls? That’s why our guys have to know it’s going to be a battle every week.”
Speaking of Menomonie and Chippewa Falls, Kowles said he expects both teams to contend for the conference crown this season, along with Rice Lake, who brings back nearly everyone from its 2012 playoff team including a Division I linebacker committed to Illinois.
“Menomonie is always tough, and Chippewa Falls is a team, I know they struggled last year, but they have a lot of returning players. Eau Claire Memorial’s also got a lot of skill coming back.”
Kowles said the Raiders will find out in a hurry how good they are, with their first four games against Minnetonka, Chanhassen, Rice Lake and Chippewa Falls. For now though, the team is focusing on this Friday night’s game at Minnetonka.
“We have to be ready Friday,” he said. “Minnetonka is really good. They’re really fast on defense and physical on defense and they’re fast on offense, so we have to be ready.”
As far as team goals, Kowles said he doesn’t tie them into winning or losing.
“Our goal is to get better every week, get better every day, every practice,” he said. “ If we do that the winning will take care of itself.”
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