MENOMONIE — It was an unseasonably warm Friday night on Sept. 15.
And Menomonie running back Justin Evans, who had already had around 30 bruising runs against a physical Hudson defense, was in clear discomfort on the sidelines.
But not even the worst of cramps could keep him off the field. With his team nursing a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter, Evans hobbled into the huddle and kept pounding through the tackles.
On third-and-4, he busted loose for 27 yards. After a few methodical rushes, he scampered through the hole from 41 out into the end zone for the dagger in the game that ultimately decided the Big Rivers Conference.
“There were multiple games I’d cramp up on the field and would just kind of stand through it,” Evans said. “I knew I needed to be out there.”
This fall was Evans’ third as a featured runner in a usually crowded Menomonie backfield. He shared it his sophomore year with current Wisconsin linebacker Mason Stokke and then Mitch Weber, who graduated last season.
With two scholarship quarterbacks — Nate Stanley and Jace LaBuda — off to college, Evans was one of the only returners with experience at a skill position offensively. Mustangs coach Joe LaBuda knew he’d have to rely on him heavily.
In crucial games, that meant getting the rock anywhere from 30 to 45 times. In a physical league like the Big Rivers, that’s a lot to ask for a body to go through. But Evans delivered and then some. Despite other teams knowing he’d be heavily featured, Evans rushed for 1,946 yards and 31 touchdowns on 295 carries.
It’s only fitting the Big Rivers offensive player of the year and honorable mention WFCA all-state pick shoulders one more load. Evans is the Leader-Telegram’s 2017 All-Northwest football player of the year.
“He was a war horse and we just kept pounding him at people and he kept getting better as the game went on,” LaBuda said.
He played a crucial part in the Mustangs repeating as conference champions.
“Rushing for close to 2,000 yards in a season against the defenses of the BRC and playoff teams is an amazing accomplishment,” River Falls coach David Crail said. “Justin was the focal point of defenses and still was able to lead Menomonie to an undefeated regular season and a Level Three playoff appearance.”
Evans, who began playing football in second grade after befriending a group of gridiron junkies at Oak Lawn Elementary School, was 160 pounds his sophomore year. In fact, he played more defensive back than running back.
He gained 20 pounds in the offseason and split touches with Weber in 2016. Evans was injured part of that year but still had 1,049 yards on 168 carries.
Knowing he’d be the guy in 2017, Evans put on another 20 prior to the season.
“So I could take the hits,” he said.
But he also strengthened himself mentally.
“He toughened up a lot,” LaBuda said. “This year he knew it was his show.”
That came to light with the way he ran on Friday nights.
A downhill runner, Evans never shied away from contact. He always found a way to gain positive yards and make something happen after the initial hit.
“Very difficult to bring down,” Hudson coach Adam Kowles said. “Punishing runner with speed as well. Always falling forward and it usually takes many people to bring him down.”
When he first broke onto the scene, he was more of a shifty back who had to make people miss. With his added muscle, he was about as old-school, smash-mouth as it got. His strength was grinding away at teams. He had double-figure carries on drives. Against Green Bay Southwest in the playoffs, he had 18 on the first drive alone.
It’s not as though he’d pop off an 80-yard dash down the sideline. Eight yards here, four yards there. First down. Touchdown. Repeat.
That would open things up for him later in the game, and it also took pressure off a young passing attack.
“I think a good way to describe his running is relentless,” LaBuda said. “He had 1,900 yards and 90 percent of them came between the tackles. Sometimes when you see a back with a lot of yards, they get around on jet sweeps and speed plays.”
Not Evans. And needless to say, that type of running called for a lot of ice baths after games.
Evans recalled after the Hudson game how bruised his arms were from a grueling 37-carry, 325-yard performance. That set a Menomonie single-game record in the 36-24 win. That’s a night he still remembers well, and he’s also filled with gratitude.
“The O-line was doing amazing that game for me,” Evans said. “They were pushing them off the line and taking kids and making them look like a sled pushing them. That’s how a lot of the holes opened up. That let me get to the secondary, and I could make some moves in the secondary.”
Fullback John Brogan also opened up plenty of holes.
That game against the Raiders epitomized everything that was Menomonie football in 2017.
Evans’ yardage could have been significantly higher had he been let out for even a few more series in blowouts. That probably cost him a spot on first-team all-state.
“There were five games this year he didn’t touch the ball in the second half,” LaBuda said. “That’s the sad part about it.”
Menomonie is never one to run up the score, and it’s typical to see the Mustangs pull starters when the game is well in hand.
Anybody who watched Evans all year though would have an awfully tough time coming up with 10 better running backs in the state. Everybody in the stadium knew he’d be getting the ball. And still nobody could stop him.
The only time he didn’t rush for more than 100 yards was when he was pulled after six carries and 71 yards in a 44-0 win over Eau Claire North.
Off the field, he’s calm and cool, gently carrying a conversation. You wouldn’t know he’s a 2,000-yard between-the-tackles rusher. He’d never bring it up, really. His play on Friday nights does his talking for him.
“You’d never guess he’s the war horse that you see on the football field,” LaBuda said. “He has a very quiet and very withdrawn personality.”
He also thrived in pressure situations.
“In the big games is I thought when he played his biggest,” LaBuda said.
He’ll be extending his football career at the next level. He just isn’t quite sure where.
Evans had a fall to remember and was a huge reason the Mustangs advanced to the state quarterfinals for a third consecutive season.
“It was something special,” Evans said. “The coaching staff here is amazing and they are the reason we got there. Then the work ethic all the guys had during the season, it was fun.”
With an array of postseason awards by his side, Justin Evans’ legs, at long last, are finally getting a much-deserved rest.
Quarterback: Kobe Berghammer, sr., Cumberland. A lanky kid with a cannon for a right arm, Berghammer threw for 3,201 yards, 36 touchdowns and only five interceptions, completing 221 of 328 passes. The Heart O’North player of the year was a first-team all-state selection.
He threw for 531 yards and seven touchdowns against Grantsburg, 515 yards and five scores against Bloomer and 340 yards and five TDs against Chetek-Weyerhaeuser.
“Kobe’s best games came against our best competition,” Beavers coach Corey Berghammer said.
Running back: Brady Redwine, jr., Elk Mound. At 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, Redwine was a violent runner who mixed in elite vision and speed. One of the state’s leading rusher, he had 2,598 yards and 36 touchdowns for the Dunn-St. Croix champs.
Redwine was the second-leading vote getter for All-Northwest player of the year behind Evans.
“He was a special player out on that field,” Glenwood City coach Shane Strong said. “He runs the ball well and carries a majority of the offensive snaps each game. He had a very good offensive line, but I’m not sure they have the success they did without him on the field”
Running back: Josh Biesterveld, sr., Durand. A repeat first-teamer, Biesterveld ran for 1,687 yards and 25 touchdowns. He ran for 403 yards in a first-round playoff win over Cumberland one week after rushing for 316 yards against Colfax on just 13 carries. He had a combined 13 touchdowns in those two games.
Biesterveld was a first-team all-conference back who also excelled as a linebacker.
“The best all-around football player in the Dunn-St. Croix over the past two seasons,” Spring Valley coach Ryan Kapping said. “ A very difficult player to prepare to play against because he was a threat as a runner, receiver, returner and passer. He was also a good defensive player as well.
Wide receiver: Brandon Herrick, sr., Stanley-Boyd. Another repeat first-teamer, he caught 49 passes for 732 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 66 yards receiving per game. At 6-foot, Herrick is an athlete who could do damage both with and without the ball in the Orioles’ spread look.
“Dynamic, explosive receiver,” Stanley-Boyd coach Jeff Koenig said. “Stats would be bigger but we share the ball between a lot of players.”
Wide receiver: Averie Habas, sr., Rice Lake. You might have seen his touchdown grab in the state championship game, the one where he went up and grabbed a jump ball in the back of the end zone as the Warriors rolled past New Berlin Eisenhower for the Division 3 gold ball. He made those kinds of plays all year. Habas, also a standout defensive player, had 29 catches for 483 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was first-team All-Big Rivers on both sides of the ball.
“Great two-way player,” Hudson coach Adam Kowles said.
Offensive line: Arik Johnson, sr., Rice Lake. A repeat first-teamer, Johnson paved the way for ground game that piled up 3,935 yards and 45 touchdowns en route to the WIAA Division 3 state title. Johnson was a first-team All-Big Rivers selection.
Offensive line: Bryce Kasper, sr., Elk Mound. Don’t let his 5-foot-10, 200-pound frame fool you. He’s one of the top players in the Dunn-St. Croix and helped a running game pile up 3,531 yards. Kasper was an honorable mention all-state selection.
“Bryce is an amazing puller and blocker,” Mounders coach Dave Lew said. “Was the best offensive lineman on a team that had one of the leading rushers in Wisconsin.”
Offensive line: Jake Miller, sr., Menomonie. A first-team all-state pick, Miller helped lead the charge for one of the state’s most physical teams. The 6-foot-1, 228-pound senior helped pave the way for 3,014 yards and 52 touchdowns.
Offensive line: Keavin Sabelko, sr., Menomonie. A big anchor on the line that paved way for Justin Evans and the running game, Sabelko, a 6-foot, 270-pound senior, was a first-team all-conference pick.
“Jake and Keavin were our two best offensive linemen, and our offensive line was dominant,” LaBuda said.
Offensive line: Jack Kern, sr., Memorial. Kern, who committed to Minnesota on Saturday night, was a tower of strength on the line both ways. At 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, the senior was hard to move with his exceptional agility. Defensively, he was credited with 49 tackles with seven for loss, a good number for a down lineman.
“He is incredibly strong, a weight-room freak,” Old Abes coach Mike Sinz said.”He showed good quickness for a 290-pounder and is looking forward to playing college ball.”
Kicker: Tristan Root, so., Regis. Root took over the kicking chores when returnee Jack Nicolai missed several games with an illness. The 5-foot-8, 148-pound sophomore made two of four field goals and had 16 PATs for a team that tried mainly 2-point attempts. On 58 kickoffs, he averaged an impressive 47.6 yards.
“He has a strong desire to be a great kicker and got off to a good start,” Ramblers coach Bryant Brenner said. “He did a consistent job and was a big part of our team.”
Root also played in the defensive backfield. He led the team with six interceptions and was among the team leaders in tackles with 68.
Defensive line: Rico DeLeon, jr., Chippewa Falls. A first-team All-Big Rivers selection, the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder was the staple on a young Cardinals defense. He was one of just four juniors named first-team all-conference.
“Unblockable,” Chippewa Falls coach Chuck Raykovich said.
Defensive line: Cole Godbout, sr., Hudson. A first-team all-state pick, Godbout was the West Central region and Big Rivers defensive player of the year. A player with plenty of Division 1 looks, he had 13 sacks.
“One of, if not the most physical defensive player in the conference,” River Falls’ Crail said. “Made his presence known each and every snap. Will represent the conference well at the next level.”
Defensive line: Laith Kidess, sr., Regis. A 6-foot-2, 233-pound senior, Kidess played on both sides of the ball and excelled defensively. He was credited with 78 tackles and four sacks for a team that reached the Division 6 semifinals in a 10-3 campaign.
“He is one of the best defensive linemen I’ve had the privilege to coach,” Brenner said. “He has great instincts, could slip off blocks with a nose for the ball.”
Defensive line: Cormac Sampson, sr., Memorial.A two-way player who committed to Wisconsin late last spring, Sampson was a key man in Memorial’s six-win season. Although double-teamed a good share of the time, the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder ranked third on the team in tackles with 54 and had nine sacks.
“He was the best player in the area in that he took every snap on both sides of the ball,” Sinz said. “He was so explosive for how big he was that he couldn’t be blocked by a single person.”
As a tight end, he was used mainly as a blocker but caught 10 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown.
Linebacker: Billy Brown, sr., Rice Lake. Also a bruising runner who had a pair of big touchdowns in the state title game, Brown was the heart and soul of perhaps the best defense in the area. A first-team all-conference pick and honorable mention all-state selection, Brown had 135 tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles and an interception.
Linebacker: Brett Lew, jr., Elk Mound. An honorable mention all-state pick who played on both sides of the ball for the Mounders, Lew led the Dunn-St. Croix champs with 97 tackles, a sack, fumble recovery and interception. He was also a first-team all-region selection.
“Brett loves the game of football and plays the game with all the heart, emotion and toughness a coach could ask for,” Elk Mound coach Dave Lew said.
Linebacker: Mason Platter, sr., Menomonie. The Wisconsin recruit lived up to the billing this fall, terrorizing backfields with a quick pass rush from his outside linebacker position. He was a first-team all-conference and first-team all-state selection.
“Big, athletic player who is all over the field,” Hudson’s Kowles said.
The 6-foot-5, 226-pound three-star recruit made plenty of tackles in the backfield.
Linebacker: Ben Turner, sr., Stanley-Boyd.The 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior repeats as a first-team linebacker. He was the Cloverbelt’s defensive player of the year, an all-region pick and an all-state honorable mention.
The Orioles two-way star had 160 tackles, 14½ sacks and two forced fumbles. He received several votes for All-Northwest player of the year.
“Ben is an incredible playmaker at any position,” Koenig said.
Defensive back: Jakes Asembo, jr., Hudson. Quarterbacked an extremely athletic secondary that gave up fewer than 600 passing yards all season. The 5-foot-8, 145-pound junior was first-team all-conference, all-region and an all-state honorable mention.
“Lockdown corner,” Kowles said.
Defensive back: Cade Osborn, jr., Regis. Also a running back on offense, Osborn was second on the team with 87 tackles, including 72 solo stops, and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
“He was the leader of our defensive backfield, kind of our quarterback on defense,” Brenner said of the 6-foot-2, 162-pound junior. “He got us in alignment, is a physical player and has a nose for the ball.”
Defensive back: Brandon Sutton, sr., Rice Lake. Sutton was a second-team all-conference pick who excelled on both sides of the ball. He had an interception in the state title game. Sutton had 57 total tackles, two tackles for losses and picked off four passes.
Punter: Treyton Teige, sr., Colfax. A first-team All-Dunn-St. Croix pick who was a model of consistency.
“He was just consistent all year. I don’t think he had one bad punt all year,” Vikings coach Matt DeMoe said. “Just the consistency of his punting was the most valuable thing to us.”
The quarterback is Hudson junior Keyser Helterbrand. He threw for 1,299 yards and nine touchdowns and completed 65 percent of his passes. Helterbrand, a first-team All-Big Rivers pick, also ran for 528 yards and four scores.
The running backs are Memorial senior Jack Brown, who was featured heavily in the offense and rushed for 866 yards and 14 touchdowns; Chippewa Falls senior Codie Meinen, a second-team all-conference pick who rushed for 893 yards and 10 touchdowns; and Fall Creek senior Ethan Ritger, who finished the year with 1,749 yards running behind an inexperienced offensive line.
At the wideouts are Hudson’s Max Stubbendick and Regis’ Nati Raehl. Stubbendick, a senior, was a first-team All-Big Rivers pick and had 39 catches for 592 yards and five scores, averaging 15.2 yards per reception. Raehl was more featured in the potent Regis run game but made acrobatic catches when the ball was thrown to him. The senior had 29 receptions for 579 yards and four touchdowns.
On the line are Menomonie’s Konner Rowan, Regis’ Andrew Ernstmeyer, Memorial’s Tyler Nichols, Hudson’s Kyle Schultz and Durand’s Jacob Zeilinger.
The kicker is Rice Lake’s Sam Bliese, named the top kicker in the Big Rivers.
On defense, Dunn-St. Croix co-defensive player of the year Zacc Larson of Spring Valley is on the line. He had five sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. The other D-linemen are Bloomer senior Payton Dachel, a first-team all-region pick that anchored the team to a Heart O’North title; Independence/Gilmanton’s Russ Heiden; Elk Mound’s Will Muszynski and Mondovi’s Ryan Schwartz.
Chetek-Weyerhaeuser’s Daniel Chuchwar, who is also one of the area’s better running backs, is a repeat pick at linebacker. The senior is joined by teammate Bronson Schofield, who was the Heart O’North defensive player of the year, and Menomonie’s Kevyn Perkins.
The defensive backs are Glenwood City’s Carson Strong, a first team all-region pick who shared D-SC defensive player of the year honors with Larson; Memorial’s Adam Webb and Stanley-Boyd’s Ben Milas.
The punter is Menomonie senior Tyler Amundson.