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Packers experienced in right areas; New football format means less EDC games

Jacob Keifer of West Fargo evades a tackle during a scrimmage with Shanley High School last week. Dave Wallis/The Forum

After the graduation of so many players from last year's Packer football team that made the state quarterfinals, some fans may think the team's prospects aren't too bright this year.

But actually last year's team had it worse, entering the season with very little varsity experience at all. The Packers surely did lose experience and talent from last year's team, but this year's squad has a solid foundation of experienced talent on both sides of the ball.

West Fargo returns three offensive linemen, a quarterback, a running back, a pair of tight ends and three linebackers, giving these Packers experience where it counts - in many key on-field leadership positions.

"We have the guys calling the defense back, and we have the guys calling the offense back too," said longtime Packers coach Jay Gibson. "It's a good base, a really good nucleus to start with."

That experience starts at perhaps the most important position on the field -quarterback, where senior Bryce Jorgenson will lead the team after rotating in and out each series last season with graduate Alan Neer.

Jorgenson proved he can run the ball, with 67 rushes for 228 yards and four touchdowns. He was 38-for-77 passing last year for 643 yards with three touchdowns and six interceptions. Jorgenson was the fourth-rated QB in the conference. Backup quarterbacks this season will be senior Levi Bachmeier and junior Matt Ruff.

"My experience from last year has helped a lot, knowing who to throw to," said Jorgenson, who Gibson praised for his solid preseason play both in practice and in the annual scrimmage against Fargo North last weekend.

"He knows what's going on and can help out some of the younger guys," said the coach.

Who Jorgenson will be throwing to is another story. All of last season's top receivers graduated, leaving the receiving corps with plenty of newcomers, such as senior Chris Williams and junior Brady Schwarz. Other receivers include junior Zach Neer, senior Cody Albert and seniors Jake Bucholz and Austin Nelson, both experienced tight ends from last year (Bucholz was a starter).

Senior Jake Kiefer, last year's backup running back to graduate David Schmidt, will run the ball, along with juniors Nathan Stanczyk and Jordan Rasmussen.

"I would think Jake Kiefer is going to take 70 percent of the snaps, because Jake is a good player," said Gibson. "He's shifty, and we have to figure out how to get him the ball because he's a really, really good receiver."

An experienced offensive line will be led by senior tackles Taylor Hirk and JaredSteinberger and senior guard Ross Montgomery - all returning starters; Steinberger and Montgomery were both named all-EDC honorable mention last year. They'll be joined by senior guard Scott Schiller and senior center Mason Herman.

Gibson values the experience he has up front, saying there's more to playing the offensive line than just being big.

"To most people they're just big guys that push people, but they have to push in a coordinated effort. It's easier to do when you have guys back like we do," said Gibson.

The defensive line will be filled by much of the offensive line, including Herman who will start at nose guard and possibly junior Tyler Kennedy. All-state defensive end Jake Bucholz returns for his senior season.

Top linebackers will be Schiller (all-state last year) and senior Jon Morken, both starters last season. Stanczyk is also slated to play linebacker. Kiefer, all-EDC honorable mention last year, is the only returning starter in the secondary and will play cornerback; he'll be joined by Bachmeier. Neer and junior Jake Hermanson will also play in the secondary along with Albert. Junior Chase Farkas will be free safety.

Senior Scott Salter, a former soccer player who will also run cross country, will be the Packers' full-time kicker this season.

A revamped 3A football league will give the Packers four non-conference games to open the season, a change from the previous years when there were only two. The EDC lost three smaller schools in football, Fargo Shanley, Devils Lake and Wahpeton, but gained Jamestown from the West.

The regular season now consists of the four games against WDA opponents followed by five conference matchups. The Packers won't play their first EDC game until Sept. 25, at home versus Wahpeton. Homecoming will actually be against a WDA team on Sept. 18, against Minot.

"Those four games will give us a month to work out any kinks that we have. That's a lot of time," said Kiefer.

Gibson said the new format will allow the Packers to be more familiar with the other side of the state come playoff time. He also said it gives him and his coaches a chance to put more players on the field, especially early in the season.

"We have time to evaluate the athlete, because at positions the difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 guy is minimal. We now have four weeks where we can play both, because the first four games are practices...But that can be hard to do also because you always want to win," said Gibson. "But it's also neat, because we're going to play a whole bunch of guys, and the guys on the second team are going to be good, because they're going to get a lot of playing time."

Some of those players could include a small corps of unnamed sophomores that should see some varsity action this year.

The lack of conference opponents will likely shrink the standings gap between the top few teams in the smaller conference, creating a logjam at the end of the season of teams that went 4-1 or 3-2 in EDC play.

Gibson said those top EDC teams could be Fargo South, followed by Fargo North or Grand Forks Red River. He also said newcomer Jamestown is a solid team.

The Packers have finished 6-4 four seasons in a row, losing in the state quarterfinals each of those seasons. West Fargo hasn't missed the playoffs since 2001.

Also, former Packer star turned Seattle Seahawk fullback Tyler Roehl is back in town and helping coach the Packers this season. He's rehabbing a knee injury and planning to get another shot at the NFL possibly later this year.

The Packers open their season tomorrow at Mandan.