The West Fargo Packers football team takes the field for its first regular season game at home against Bismarck this Friday night, and with a crew of 92 players, half of them sophomores, Coach Jay Gibson is happy with where his team is.
"We have a really good group of players," Gibson said. "Many have done their prep work, I can tell. They are very fit. A lot of them came to practice bigger and stronger than last year."
When discussing his team, three players -- senior lineman Brody Mertz, senior linebacker/offensive lineman Drew Johnson and senior tight end/linebacker Caleb Mattila -- stood out to Gibson.
"Those are three guys that probably won't come off the field very much this season," Gibson said. "(Mattila) catches the ball real well. He is coming off a bum knee, and he missed part of the basketball season because of it, but I don't think it's going to matter. He is very knowledgeable and he's a real good player."
Gibson mentioned that Johnson injured his shoulder in last Friday's scrimmage and is doubtful for Friday's game. However, it should not affect the team for the rest of the season. Gibson claims that Johnson will most likely be the team's leading tackler at the end of the season.
After two weeks of two-a-day practices, Gibson is feeling good about his squad.
"We've had two good weeks of practice," Gibson said. "The weather has really cooperated and the team has looked good."
Gibson sees his receiving core as the major strength for his team, and it is hard to argue with that. The team was third in completions and in passing touchdowns last season, and with senior receivers Justin Heisler, who had 32 receptions for the Packers last season, and Jaime Heinen, a state champion in track and field, returning to the team, there is plenty of talent to improve that standing.
One of the team's weaker points last season was its offensive line. The Packers were last in the Eastern Dakota Conference in rushing yards last season and the only team with fewer than 1,000 yards carrying the ball, and Gibson says the line needs to, and should, make a "marked improvement" this season.
There is no doubt that the Packers had a rough season in 2011, going 3-6 and giving up 211 points while only scoring 163. They rushed for 600 fewer yards than the second-worst team in that category. Despite having the third-most completions in the conference, they had the third-worst completion percentage.
Yet despite these issues, the Packers seem to be set for a better season. The team's top receiver, Heisler, has one more year with the team, along with other solid receivers like junior Jacob Blotsky and senior Jordan Bishoff. Senior linebacker Shelby Schulz was second in the conference with three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and has the potential for a similar season.
While important pieces from last year are gone, plenty of players are back with another year under their belts. Along with that, new players have a chance to rise up and inject new life into the team.