Prep football: Northwestern looks to sustain momentum
After going 11-1 in 2021 and falling in the state quarterfinal for the third straight time, the Tigers are looking to take the next step this season.
MAPLE — School is still several weeks away, but Northwestern has been practicing for two weeks, with its 2022 season kicking off Friday, Aug. 19.
The Tigers tore through the 2021 regular season undefeated and lost to Ellsworth in the state quarterfinal — the third straight time they’ve ended their season just three wins shy of a state championship. There were no playoffs in 2020, but in 2018, 2019 and 2021 the Tigers fell to the state runner-up in each season.
Northwestern players are itching to break through to the next level, but after losing two first-team all-state players and another honorable mention player to graduation, the Tigers have their work cut out for them.
Both Ben Benes and Austin Schleis were first-team all-state last season and Greg Ohman got an honorable mention nod. Schleis and Ohman combined for 28 touchdowns in 2021, but it may be losing Benes that will hurt the Tigers most. Benes, the Superior Telegram All-Area Player of the Year last season, was one of the best offensive linemen in Wisconsin.
“This isn’t going to be easy, and the kids need to realize last year is gone,” head coach Jovin Kroll said. “A lot of those all-state players have graduated the program. There’s a lot of work to do to get to where they want to go, but they definitely have high hopes.”
While the loss of Benes at the strong guard position hurts, junior Ian Smith — coming off an All-Heart O’ North Conference selection as a sophomore — is going to move from the left guard to Benes’s old spot. Kroll knows it will be tough to replace Benes, but he said Smith has a lot of potential.
“I haven’t seen a guard be able to pull as fast as him in my time here at Northwestern,” Kroll said. “The sky’s the limit, there’s no doubt about that. We’re blessed to have him on that line, and he’s a kid that can play anywhere. We can put him at fullback, we can put him at tackle or tight end.”
Center Andy Bourque is excited to have Smith back with him and said the strength of the team is on the offensive line, something that has been developed by coaches at the youth level for years.
“We’re known as a running school, we run the ball hard,” Bourque said. “That’s what I think helps us. We’re powerful and we’re violent with our hands. We play violent — that’s how we want to play.”
Senior quarterback Luke Sedin passed for 1,360 yards and 21 touchdowns last season while completing more than 70% of his passes. What’s more, two of his leading receivers from last season are back in Jase Nelson and Tanner Kaufman.
The Tigers will continue to be a run-oriented team, according to Sedin.
“We’re not going to change a lot,” Sedin said. “We’re going to stay in the double wing, but we might open up a little more than last year with throwing the ball, but we’re going to stay ground and pound.”
Kroll said while they will still run the ball plenty, passing will be a “point of emphasis” this year as well to be ready for the playoffs when teams like Ellsworth will load up the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
“I have to discipline myself to continually focus on throwing the ball,” Kroll said. “Our linemen are such good run blockers, it’s hard to not take the temptation to just keep pounding the ball when it’s so successful.”
Northwestern will open up the season at home against Ashland at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19.