Mabel-Canton football restocking skill positions

By: 
Chad Smith

The Mabel-Canton football team is well over a week into practice as they prepare to open the season at home on Friday, Aug. 30, against sub-district rival Lanesboro. While the roster appears young, the Cougars do have some solid players to build around. The Cougars only have two seniors on the roster but will build around four experienced, albeit young, linemen and a 1,000-yard running back.

After a pair of seven-win seasons (2015 and 2016), the Cougars have been around .500 the last two seasons, going 5-5 in 2018 after a 4-5 record in 2017. A big part of that may be due to the strength of the schedule, as three of last year's five losses came versus state-ranked teams.

M-C was the No. 5 seed in the playoffs and won a road playoff game last year (62-30 over No. 4 Cleveland) before falling to eventual state champion Spring Grove (42-14) in section semi-finals.

The Cougars will be looking for more offensive production this season as the average score last year was a 33-24 loss, with Cougars winning both of the close games by 26-20 scores.

The cupboard isn’t bare for the Cougars' return, who bring back 14 letter winners, including about half of last year's playing rotation.

The most playing experience returns in the interior line. There will be holes to fill as graduation claimed half of the key skill players, including four-year starting quarterback and All-State defensive back Drew Wyffels, who is on this year's roster at Wartburg College.

The team will have to find players for skill positions on both sides of the ball as well as special teams. The Cougars’ two leading receivers, the two starting cornerbacks and the two leading kick returners all graduated after last season.

Cougars on offense

The skill-position exception on offense is 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior Gavin Johnson, who was last year's leading rusher. He averaged an impressive 5.7 yards per carry while rushing for 1,013 yards as only a sophomore. Johnson took full advantage of the offensive scheme, as M-C was a run-oriented team with about five times as many runs as passes last year. Three-fourths of the team’s total yardage was gained on the ground.

The team will rely on the boys up front to set the tone. Coming back are four linemen, who manned the three interior line positions - juniors Randy Gerard (5-11, 260), Colton Heintz-Kuderer (5-10, 200) and Brady Yoder (5-10, 200) along with freshman Matt McClimon (5-10, 200).

However, both tight ends graduated. McClimon will likely move to tight end while senior Dawson Wilder (6-2, 210), sophomore Alex Arneson (5-11, 180) and junior Rien Crawford (5-10 160) will all vie for the other spot.

Junior Jack Arneson (5-9, 140) moves up from quarterbacking the B team to call signals for the varsity this year.

Senior Ethan Underbakke (6-2), who started as wingback last year, returns and could also join Johnson in the backfield. Senior tight end Dawson Wilder could also be a running back.

Joining Underbakke as wingback candidates are juniors Dawson Wangen (6-2, 160) and Reid Crawford (5-10, 160).

A group of boys battling to add depth in the line are sophomores Owen Underbakke, James Arneson, Braydin Jump and newcomer Spencer Douglas plus freshmen Robert Michels and Kaiser Soiney.

Some of the other backfield candidates are sophomore Jaymeson Tollefsrud plus freshmen Dawson Kleiboer, Jordan Larson and Trae Mathison as well as eighth-grader Cayden Tollefsrud.

Cougars on Defense

Five of last year’s most active defenders return to the field this year - three linemen and two linebackers. Gerard, Heintz-Kuderer, Yoder, Wilder and Rien Crawford will share duty as the three down linemen, backed up by Michels.

Johnson is back at middle linebacker, but former linebacker Ethan Underbakke is expected to move back to safety. Alex Arneson, Rien Crawford and McClimon are good bets to fill the two vacancies at linebacker.

There are some holes to fill in the defensive backfield as neither of last year's starting cornerbacks return; strong candidates are Jack Arneson, Jaymeson Tollefsrud, Cayden Tollefsrud and Reid Crawford. Dawson Wangen will likely see significant defensive duty where needed most.

Kicking game

The Cougars have a lot of holes to fill in the kicking game. Dawson Wilder returns and was the punter last year, averaging 31.2 yards per attempt. But gone with graduation, are last year's kickoff man, long snapper and the top two kick returners.

Outlook

Karl Urbaniak enters his 35th season as head coach (180 wins, 145 losses) along with veteran assistant Paul Tollefsrud, volunteer Russell Larson and veteran multi-sport manager Daylon Jacobsen. A new addition to the football coaching staff is Adam Wilder, who will work with the Mabel-Canton/Spring Grove junior high team.

Urbaniak enjoys working with these athletes, who he says are receptive to coaching. "They realize there is a long way to go,” he said.

The season begins with 23 aspirants - two seniors, eight juniors, six sophomores, another half-dozen freshmen and an eighth-grader. The most experience and depth are on the line of scrimmage, but the veteran linemen are still underclassmen - three juniors and a freshman.

The line did improve throughout last season, but more progress is needed if they are to compete with the better teams on the schedule. There will be some new faces at several skill positions and in the kicking game. "So many unknowns," was the summary statement of the veteran coach.

The start

Grand Meadow will once again host the annual multi-team scrimmages this Saturday morning, Aug. 24, at 9 a.m.

The Cougars host Lanesboro on Friday, Aug. 30, with the season opener kicking off Labor Day weekend. The complete schedule may be found on the special color sports page in this issue.