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The building blocks for the offense are these returning starters, from left, right tackle Robert Johnson, center Jack LaPatka, right guard Ade Sobande and quarterback Jackson Illies. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton

After a year with the spread offense, Ridgewater goes to ground

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WILLMAR - It's back to run first for the Ridgewater Warriors after implanting a wide-open spread formation last autumn.

The Warriors open their nine-game schedule against Itasca at 11 a.m. Saturday at Husky Stadium in St. Cloud.

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The Warriors finished 4-5 last fall.

The roster lists 11 sophomores and 45 freshmen.

Coach Rob Baumgarn, who begins his fifth season with a 19-26 record, said the team more than held its own in a scrimmage at Big Cat Stadium on Saturday with the University of Minnesota-Morris Cougars.

"I like this team," said Baumgarn. "They are football smart, dedicated and easy to work with. We've got speed, too."

This week he reviewed and commented on prospects for the new season.

Offense

Line: A solid front five but there's not much depth. Several defensive players will have to prepare for two-way duty in an emergency.

Brandon Murdock -- at 6-foot-3, 295 pounds -- is a physical left tackle who will work beside left guard Nesbitt Gilliland (6-1, 275). Jack LaPatka is a 6-2, 255-pound second-year starter at center.

Ade Sobande (6-1, 305) is back at right guard. Baumgarn had to move Robert Johnson (6-3, 290) to offense after a stellar season at defensive tackle. He'll start at right tackle.

Johnnie Miller (6-8, 250) and Trent Kotasek (6-0, 350) are the only fill-ins.

Running back: Davontay Stevens, a 5-8, 210-pound freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., has been a tough tackle in the preseason.

Also looking for carries are Gabriel Kromah and Cameron Halvorson.

Fullback: Isaiah Athey (5-10, 265) of Clinton was good for four to five yards every time he touched the ball during the scrimmage with the Cougars. Baumgarn said he's quick for his size. There's good depth here with Zach Neubarth, a fine blocker who played at Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop his senior year after McLeod West closed.

Wide Receiver/tight end: The wide receiver position is rich in talent and nine deep, led by Marcus Thames, who went up over defenders for two touchdown catches at Morris. The mix includes Eric Pressley, Elijah Lee, Keante Johnson, Jake Bothun and Zach Wieweck.

Tight end Anton Bedeaux is strong, big (6-3, 235 pounds) and can block and catch the ball with authority. Zach Ripka returns and will play in double tight-end formations.

Quarterback: Jackson Illies, 6-2 and listed at 220 pounds, though likely heavier, returns. With more emphasis on the rushing game, the Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa product won't have to move the offense on his own. Colton Otto, from Mayer Lutheran, has been impressive and his 5-10 height hasn't appeared to be a drawback at a position where the team is just two deep.

Defense

Line: Defensive tackle Kris Belfry is the acknowledged leader by both his strength of character and experience. Anders Kullhem and Rob Griffin will share time at the other down tackle.

At defensive end, Nate Wensauer, from Sacred Heart, has looked good and Rob Diane (Din-NAY) is athletic. Both are about 6-3 and 230 pounds.

Marcus Morrisette backs up at end while Michael Nguyen and Connor Doyle will rotate in at tackle.

Baumgarn rates the defensive line as "very strong."

Linebackers: The Warriors' three-linebacker set at a position that is six deep is the quickest Baumgarn has had. Returnee Brennen Hagert will play the wide side, Jon Cross will shut down the middle and Daryl Thomas is a speedy 180 pounder on the other side.

There's little drop off with Melvin Kromah, Andy Strei, and Harry Cador in reserve.

Secondary: "Crowded," is how Baumgarn describes the last line of defense. The depth will allow defensive coordinator Jim Mitteness to go with five, even six, pass defenders in obvious passing situations.

Andy Rauen has a full season under his pads at cornerback. So does Jon Carter, the vocal leader at strong safety. Six-foot-three Ivory Slaughter, one of three players from Livonia High School in Louisana, will play the free safety. Brandon Krona and Jamie Field, both freshmen out of Minneapolis Washburn, are competing for the same starting spot at cornerback.

Aaron Belfry, Kris's younger brother, will see a lot of action. Also capable and looking for playing time are Shelby Dhames, Scott Thiemann, Kiwon Bates and Elijah Swen.

Special teams

Kick-off, place-kicking: Elijah Swen ... Long snap: Davontay Stevens, Mike Kervina ... Punter: Daryl Thomas ... Kickoff and punt return: Swen, Kiwon Bates, Keante Johnson.

Injuries: Martell Harris, who would have led the secondary, broke his arm a second time on the second day of practice and will not play. Elijah Lee is out for now with a broken rib and Trent Kotasek is dealing with a knee injury.

Coaches: Jim Mitteness, defensive coordinator, secondary; Ken Heitzman, defensive line; Justin DeLeeuw, wide receivers; Jeff Madsen, running backs; Justin Boike, offensive line; Joe Doubler, student assistant, linebackers.

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Rand Middleton

Covers Willmar and area high schools and Ridgewater College, plus amateur baseball, stock car racing and fitness events in summer. Writes weekly column since 1980. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 

(320) 214-4334
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