BY ROB LAPLANTE
St. Michael-Albertville head coach Jared Essler appears to have most the puzzle pieces already in place heading into the 2012 high school football season.
In just his fourth season as head coach at STMA, Essler’s teams have finished no lower than third place in the Mississippi 8 Conference. Last year’s 5-2 conference record was second to only Rogers, who finished 5-1 and were Section 5 champs of Class 4A.
The Knights open their regular season schedule with a home game Aug. 30 against Cambridge-Isanti. With the team returning five all-conference players and posting its highest finish since winning the Mississippi 8 title in 2007, Essler said he is hoping for big things this season.
“Our goal is to win the conference,” Essler said. “We have some really good seniors back who played a lot as juniors. Hopefully we can stay healthy, catch a few breaks along the way and maybe we can win it.”
Senior’s Cole Krutzig, Ryan Lyzhoft, Mike Kessler, Ben Wilson and Tyler Berhow all were all-conference players last year. Krutzig, Lyzhoft, Wilson, Berhow and senior Brian Ferry will serve as captains.
While the opening game appears to be a favorable matchup against the last-place team in the conference a year ago, Essler said he expects Cambridge-Isanti to provide a good test in week one.
“They kind of had a blimp in the radar last year,” said Essler, on his matchup with the 1-8 Bluejackets. “They traditionally are a tough opponent that runs the ball well and plays tough physical defense. They had a good sophomore and junior varsity team last year. They will be a good test in week one and we’ll definitely have our hands full.”
The Knights should get a real good test this Saturday, when they travel to Wayzata High School for a scrimmage against the high-powered Trojans.
The Knights look to improve on its 18.7 points per game from a year ago. It was the conference’s second worst offensive production. Only Cambridge-Isanti averaged less at 13.1.
With four all-conference players returning on the offensive side of the ball, the offense already has some familiarity and hopes to score a few more points.
Krutzig enjoyed a career season last year at quarterback. He threw for 810 passing yards and seven TD’s. He was also a threat on the ground, rushing for 328 yards and scoring five TD’s. Krutzig said he’s expecting big things and he’s excited to get the season underway.
“I’ve been really anxious to get back into football,” Krutzig said. “A lot of the guys have been working hard and lifting weights in the off-season. We should have a pretty solid team.”
Krutzig will have the luxury once again of handing the ball off to last year’s leading rusher Ryan Lyzhoft. In his junior year, Lyzhoft had a breakout season in which he amassed over 900 yards of total offense – 892 of those on the ground. He also found the end zone a team high eight times.
Asked what it feels like to have his starting quarterback and tailback returning for one final season, Essler was quick to answer.
“It’s been a long time since we returned both at that position,” he said. “We’d like to see Cole get his 49-percent completion percentage up this year, but he’s always a threat both passing and rushing. Ryan rushed for 900 yards in only nine games so that’s a pretty good per game average.”
The Knights lost its top wide receivers in Michael Wiese and Ben Zahler. But, senior Tony Bork and Ferry made some key plays a year ago. Ferry is this year’s top threat at wide receiver. He finished with eight receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown. His 17.9 yards per catch were tops on the team.
“We’re working on it,” said Krutzig, when asked about the passing game. “We have a couple guys looking good so far. It should be fun.”
Depth on D
On paper, defense appears to be the strength of the team. In contrast from their offense, last season STMA finished second to only Rogers in points allowed per game (15.8).
They do lose leading tacklers Chris Kleven and Cory Rothstein. Together they combined for 129 total tackles. Returning is senior linebackers Wilson and Eric Johnson. Berhow returns at defensive back and Kessler solidifies the defensive line.
Berhow finished with 26 solo tackles and assisted on 23 others. Johnson had 53 total tackles and two sacks. Essler was quick to point out Wilson as a player who potentially could have a big year.
“Ben is one of the quickest and strongest guys we have on the team,” Essler said. “He plays both linebacker and fullback for us. He’s one of those guys you try and get on the field as much as you can.”
Senior defensive lineman Zach Battleson also brings experience to the table. He played in all nine games and finished with 27 total tackles.
The team lost both its kick returner in Wiese and punt returner in Joe Williams. Williams proved to be a game changer averaging 25.6 kick return yards and he broke loose scoring a long TD in a 28-14 win over Becker last year.
Lyzhoft was used sparingly in that position last season and Essler may avoid using him in that role to avoid an injury to his starting running back. Other options may be Bork or senior Dallas Freeman.
On the positive side of special teams, kicker Justin McLain, who was a perfect 21-for-21 in kicking extra points, is back for his senior year. McLain, who also is the leading scorer on the soccer team, will likely split some duties again with backup kicker Alexander McLellan. Johnson, the team’s lone punter from a year ago also returns.
8/30 Cambridge-Isanti, 7 p.m.
9/7 @ Duluth East, 6 p.m.
9/14 Big Lake, 7 p.m.
9/21 @ Rogers, 7 p.m.
9/28 Buffalo, 7 p.m.
10/6 @ Brainerd, 2 p.m.
10/12 Fergus Falls, 7 p.m.
10/17 @ Monticello, 7 p.m.