Last year, Upsala-Swanville Area (USA) had the daunting task of filling 16 of 22 starting positions.
The Patriots responded by making the state tournament.
This fall, they have to fill the shoes of one of the top players in program history, two-time all-area player of the year Mitch Lange.
How USA will fare with this new challenge will have a lot to do with how it replaces the departed two-way standout at running back and linebacker.
One thing for sure, though, is that one person alone won’t be able to do it.
“You never replace guys the caliber of Mitch,” USA head coach Jay Loven said. “Our philosophy is team-based, and that’s what we will need to help compensate for the loss of all of our seniors, including Mitch. If everyone steps their game up just a little bit, we hope to have a smooth transition.”
The Patriots return the senior passing connection of quarterback Tyler Evans and wide receiver Jordan Sales, which accounted for 11 touchdowns, but will still look to pound the ball on the ground.
“Our offensive philosophy will not change with Mitch gone,” Loven said. “We still would like to have at least a 70-30 split, run to pass.”
Junior Kyle Lange will get most of the work at tailback, with junior Garrett Karnes and sophomore Dylan Graves vying for the inside linebacker role.
Returning starters for the Patriots include seniors Austin Johnson (guard/cornerback), Aaron Ripplinger (fullback/linebacker), Aidan Guthrie (defensive end), Chris George (defensive tackle), Evans (quarterback/free safety) and Sales (wide receiver/defensive end) and juniors Carten Loven (wide receiver/cornerback), Justin Cichon (center), Andrew Kulla (offensive tackle) and Kyle Lange (tailback/linebacker).
New players looking to step in and contribute will be seniors Jesse Goodell (linebacker) and Zach Ainali (defensive tackle), juniors Timmy Valencia-Louden (tailback/defensive end) and Karnes (slot/linebacker) and sophomores Troy Evans (offensive tackle), Charlie Kurowski (guard), Cole Pfeiffer (offensive tackle), Cody Wensmann (guard), Myron Ripplinger (slot/linebacker) and Graves (fullback/linebacker).
After giving eventual state champion Mahnomen its toughest test in the Class A tournament, the Patriots know what it is like to go toe to toe with the best the state has to offer.
“Our kids know now what it takes to be successful in the playoffs,” Loven said. “If we work harder than we did last year, we hope to again play well when the end of the season comes. As far as predicting success, we will always look at one game at a time. If you don’t do that, that’s when teams sneak up on you.”
USA is scheduled to open the season at Otter Tail Central, Thursday, with its home opener against Wadena-Deer Creek, Sept. 5.