Prep football: Jaguars claw way back from the brink
Just four years ago, the Renville County West football program appeared to be on life support. After finishing 6-4 in 2007 and 5-4 in 2008, the Jaguars fell to 2-7 in their first season in the Little Sioux Conference in 2009. After their 2010 Hom...
Just four years ago, the Renville County West football program appeared to be on life support.
After finishing 6-4 in 2007 and 5-4 in 2008, the Jaguars fell to 2-7 in their first season in the Little Sioux Conference in 2009. After their 2010 Homecoming game, the school forfeited its final three games because of a lack of players.
The situation didn’t improve much in 2011, with the Jags many times suiting up just 14 players and ending the year with a 1-8 record. They scored just 34 total points and just 14 points during a seven-game losing streak to finish their final season as an 11-man team.
On Friday, the once-beleaguered Jaguars will be a favorite to defeat Heron Lake-Okabena and improve to 3-1 heading into a Sept. 26 game against Edgerton-Ellsworth for first place in the 9-man Southern Confederacy Conference’s West Division. The Jags’ current roster sits at a relatively robust 25-30 players.
“It was just a matter of our younger players growing up,” said RCW head coach Ryan Hebrink, now in his fifth season. “Our juniors and seniors were in seventh- and eighth-grade when we started. We could always see the potential there, it was just a matter of them developing, and that’s what these guys have fully committed to.”
The Jaguars’ turn-around wasn’t a miracle, just the result of hard work and leadership, Hebrink said.
The current team, led by senior captains Jesse Miller, Nick Fischer and Nate Refsland, got into the weight room and convinced others, including classmates who hadn’t played football, to join them. They endured losses - the Jags were 1-17 in their first two seasons in 9-man - but learned. And they stayed positive, Hebrink said.
“We were optimistic about these guys,” he said. “They did the extra things that end up paying off so much, but that takes some years for that to happen. We felt like they were going to develop into the players that they are, but it takes time.”
The future was bleak in 2010 and 2011, but the coaching staff was looking ahead. After the forfeits, RCW instead played a JV schedule to get players experience. Despite having just 14 or 15 players to play an 11-man schedule, coaches wouldn’t risk injuring their developing eighth- and ninth-graders by playing them in varsity games against experienced, mature upperclassmen.
The results started to materialize. RCW was 0-9 in 2012 and 1-8 in 2013. Most of the losses were lopsided but the Jags stayed within a couple of scores in a couple of games.
“A big part of that was taking that next step to being a more competitive program,” Hebrink said. “We showed some flashes last year and in some of the games we played pretty well. A lot of credit goes to those guys on those past teams. Unfortunately, they don’t get to experience the success on the field that the current players are having, but I hope they feel good about it.”
This year, the Jags opened with a convincing 36-0 win over Aldan-Conger but the true sign they were back on track came the next week, when they lost 28-26 to Madelia, a 3-0 team that is tied with state-ranked Nicollet atop the SCC’s East Division. The previous two seasons, Madelia defeated RCW twice by a combined score of 78-21. Last week, RCW routed then-undefeated Cleveland 35-12.
Quarterback Hayden Johnson is second in the Tribune area with 464 passing yards and he’s thrown five touchdowns, and he’s among are leaders with 266 rushing yards and three TDs. Running backs Colin Thompson and Alex Villarreal have caught passes for 160 and 136 yards, respectively, and a combined four touchdowns. Thompson also has run for 146 yards and two scores.
Hebrink deserves a lot of credit for fostering the improved vibe around the team. He was a sports star and graduate of the final BDRSH class in 2000 before the district became RCW. He played two sports at Concordia-Moorhead, earned his physical therapy degree in Rochester while his family settled in Inver Grove Heights.
He returned to the area to work at ACMC in 2008, and before the 2010 season he received a call from former RCW athletic director Dale Negen asking if he wanted the varsity football job.
“Was it a challenge?” Hebrink said. “I don’t know if I really took it on as a challenge to me to see if I could turn this around. It was more a matter of having some pride in where you come from and the school you graduated from and see if I was going to be able to help out in some fashion.”
He heaps credit, instead, on the players who have grown into winners.
“It’s about the players for us to go from having one senior and a few juniors and forced to play a JV schedule to where we are now,” said Hebrink, whose roster is comprised of six seniors, 11 juniors, eight sophomores and five freshmen. “We have guys who have stuck with it, and when you have the good leaders we have in our junior and senior classes, it makes more guys go out for football and be part of it. If you don’t have the players, you don’t have the program.”