When Eau Claire Memorial played a postseason regulation game of underclassmen against Wisconsin Rapids, the Old Abe roster was long enough to rival a college team.
The list was 48 names long – juniors and sophomores only.
Oh, by the way, they are expected to make up the nucleus of next year’s team.
“There is a lot of excitement and optimism in the program,” second-year head coach Mike Sinz said.
Among the names are a record-setting quarterback, highly-recruited runner, three or four outstanding receivers and a solid group of linemen up front.
It is true that it was just a 3-win season in which they went 2-5 in the Big Rivers Conference. Not impressive numbers to carry over.
But they will bring back a good share of an offense that piled up 245 points and averaged 362 yards a game.
And they expect to be healthier and more experienced on a defense that was porous at times, allowing 343 points and 371 yards a game.
“The major emphasis will be on defense, open-field tackling and team speed,” Sinz said.
The Abes were only a couple points from a possible playoff berth this season when they blew a 24-point lead in a 67-65 overtime loss to Chippewa Falls.
“We had some key injuries in that game and if we wouldn’t have gotten banged up,” Sinz said, “we may have won and that would have been a huge statement for the program.”
It was in that game that quarterback Bryson Johnson passed for a state record-tying eight touchdowns and a school record-tying 445 yards en route to a season that saw him pass for 2,043 yards and 25 touchdowns. He completed 145 of 296 attempts.
To add to that, Johnson fired five touchdown passes as the Abes defeated Wisconsin Rapids 36-0 in the unofficial season-closing game of underclassmen.
“He had a special group of receivers and they put in a lot of time together in the off-season,” Sinz said. “He started three games at the end of last season and took a huge step this year. He improved his accuracy, he’s a workaholic and his leadership was big.”
Calvin Tanner led the receivers with 41 catches for 620 yards and nine scores and was followed by tight end Nathan Hau, the only one of the group who will graduate. Hau took 39 passes for 522 yards and four scores.
“Hau had a big year, blocking and receiving.” Sinz said. “Tanner was starting for the second year and runs good routes. They have a lot of chemistry together.”
With a year remaining, Tanner has a chance to rewrite the career receiving marks. In two years, he has 58 receptions for 833 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Other returning receivers who had big years were Will Hesse (23-443-4), Jack Piper (25-280-2) and Julian Graham, who came on late in the season to take three touchdown passes.
There is no question that the Abes were hurt at midseason by the loss of tailback Loyal Crawford, who suffered a broken collarbone. He had rushed for 689 yards and eight TD at an average of 5.9 in just over four games when he went down.
“It was sad to see his season cut short and hopefully he will be back in full gear,” Sinz said. “He has speed and power and what separates him is his cutting ability. The sky is the limit.”
With two years remaining, he has already rushed for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Key seniors who will graduate are lineman Nate Lortscher and defensive performers Levi Smith, Andrew Roberts, Austin Jarvis, Carson Calchera along with consistent placekicker Colton Welke.
Smith led the team in tackles with 42 while Jarvis was credited with 37, Roberts 27 and Calchera 26.
Returning will be lineman are Nick Oberding and defensive players Grant Gerber and Ethan Van Grunsven.
“Gerber was strong in the line,” Sinz said. “Van Grunsven was one of our best athletes.”
Other seniors who contributed were Andrew Jordan, Chris Schilling, Austin Karnitz, Evan Siranni and Matt Drath.
The Abes opened with a 20-14 win over Logan, scored a big 31-24 win at Superior and defeated city rival North 33-8. They just allowed too many points in the six losses.
“We had so many young and inexperienced kids on defense,” Sinz said, “but I like how our offense got better each week.”
Next year, Memorial will have more than 20 seniors in the program with four of five offensive linemen back.
“I felt we ended the season playing our best football,” Sinz said. “We want to compete in the Big Rivers and have a good season but that will depend how dedicated they are in the weight room in the off-season,” Sinz said.