The Osakis football team will open up its season at home Thursday night against Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg hoping to rebound from a 3-5 regular season in 2010.
Head coach Bill Infanger took that losing record personally as he worked diligently in the off-season to make sure he gives his team the best opportunity to bounce back. I talked to Infanger for a story I wrote for today’s Osakis Review. Here is a complete rundown of my interview with him leading up to the season opener.
EM: How excited were you to get back at it this fall after the season you guys had last year?
Infanger: There really was never an off-season this year. We were disappointed with the way our season went overall last year with a 3-5 record. We started off right away with the weight program [after the season ended], and we had probably 10 to 12 guys who really participated hard in the weight program through the winter and into the spring, lifting weights in the morning three days a week.
I’ve been watching film and getting ready for this year ever since the last game last year. It’s been eating at me to get back out here. So yeah, really excited to get out here and excited about the fact that we have eight starters back from last year’s team to help us out and another 3-4 guys who got significant playing time on varsity last year.
So it’s a night and day difference coming into camp this year and the experience we have back and the things that we can do on a day-to-day basis. We’re a lot further ahead this year than we were last year at this time as far as what we know and where our knowledge base is at.
EM: You had been an assistant with this program but last year was your first year as the head coach. What was the biggest thing you learned in your first year as the head man?
Infanger: I’d say the biggest thing I learned is to use our players a little bit better. Instead of being disappointed or upset at what guys can’t do, I’ve found I need to focus on what guys can do and really bring that out in them and design plays around that.
Try to put our athletes in the right position to make plays. We started doing that a little bit more at the end of last year, and we’re definitely going to scheme our offense around that this year.
EM: Are you happy with the depth of this team and the numbers you have out this season?
Infanger: With 47 guys out, our depth should be pretty good, but we have a lot of linemen. A ridiculous amount of younger linemen, all wanting to play guard, tackle, center. We’re short at the defensive end, linebacker and running back positions. We have good talent there at the top, and I’m happy with that but a couple injuries could really hurt us this year.
EM: How has camp gone so far? Have you seen a solid focus from the players in practice so far?
Infanger: It’s been a little bit hit and miss. We’ve had some good days, and we’ve had some bad days. But our good days have been really good, really good intensity. We’ve had some really good senior leadership so far. The guys have been enthusiastic.
We’ve had some injuries, and on the days we’ve had some guys out with bumps and bruises, those have been the days that things have been a little bit slower. But overall, we’re happy with where we’re at right now.
EM: You have to replace a pretty solid back in Nikolaj Hagen this season. Who are you looking at to fill that halfback position and how confident are you in this team’s ability to run the ball like you want to on offense?
Infanger: We are shallow in our backfield, but I’m really excited about the guys we do have there as long as they stay healthy. We’ve got Stephan Rutten, a senior tailback this year. He played a lot last year for us, got five to 10 carries a game. This year, he’s going to be our main guy, our starting tailback.
Mitch [Herzog], his second year at fullback. We’re going to give the ball to our fullback a lot more this year than we did in the past and try to feature him a little bit more.
We’ve also got a junior back, Brian Thorstad. He spent a lot of time in the weight room this year and has really picked up his speed. He ran the fastest 40 time out here this fall, and he looks really good in drills. He’s going to press Stephan for reps and probably take a share of the load there at tailback. I think he’ll really surprise people. He’s a talented kid.
EM: You have some experience back along the offensive line with three returning starters. Do you feel some stability in that group will allow you to be a little more consistent in the running game this year?
Infanger: That was the big thing. We looked back at the games that we won, and we were able to run the ball very easily. But when we played tougher defenses with guys who were a little bit bigger and more physical than us, our lack of experience really showed. We’d lose our focus and lose our sense of responsibility on plays and get caught in the fact that the other guy was just bigger and stronger than us.
This year, I don’t think we’re going to see that. We got the experience. I think four of the five starting lineman were in the weight room this winter and put the time in, and we’ve never had that. We’ve never had that five guys across the front all participate wholeheartedly in the weight program coming into the season. So we’re really excited about that. Don’t really know what to expect, but I think it will be good.
EM: You have Cody Rupert taking over as this team’s starting quarterback. How confident are you in his ability to lead this team and make the big throws when he needs to?
Infanger: He’s a real athletic kid, first. He’s got a great arm, can throw the deep ball really good. Probably the strongest arm we have had play quarterback for us for quite a few years. He can throw it a country mile, but the big thing with him is the inexperience.
He’s got the legs to run the ball if we need him to. He has varsity experience. He was a starting cornerback for us last year and played a lot on defense, but it’s just going to be how he handles the game. Eventually he’s going to make a mistake and how does he handle that? That’s going to be the big challenge for him because he’s got all the tools.
EM: What is going to be the biggest strength of this team?
Infanger: I would say we’re strong with the eight [returning starters] that we have coming back. I’m going to put a lot of weight on those guys and expect those guys to make plays. Again, just like last year, the strength of our team is going to be running the ball.
However, this year we do expect to be more affective with our play-action passing game behind that. We’ve got both of our receivers back who got some varsity experience. So we have two guys who are experienced at the wideout position, and with Cody’s arm and the ability to throw it over the top, we should be able to stretch defenses and play the deep ball a little bit more. Then also have the underneath stuff open up because of the threat of the deep ball this year.
We’ve got guys this year that can really execute all facets of the game. We’ve got backs this year that are faster that can get to the outside. We’ve got receivers who I feel can run vertical and threaten the defense deep, and we also have some possession type receivers who can run underneath.
Again, that goes back to putting a lot of pressure on Cody being a first-year starter. He’s got to make the right read and then use that arm and those skills that he’s got and put the ball on target.
EM: What is your biggest concern with this team?
Infanger: My main concern is the mentality of the team coming in. We have to stay positive and we’ve got to get off to a quick start. Confidence is huge, especially when you’re coming off a 3-5 season. I think if we can get off to a quick start these guys will believe in themselves and the team will start to role. Where if we have some trouble early in the season and we face some adversity in that first game, how are the guys going to react to it? That’s my biggest concern.
EM: What are your realistic goals for this team?
Infanger: We haven’t talked about long term season goals. We’ve been really focused on now, on every day in practice, what can we do to become a better football team? The only team we’re talking about is KMS, that first game and getting to 1-0. That’s really all that’s on our mind.
If I have to look ahead, I would like to set a goal of we have to have a winning season this year. I think with the guys that we have back, we should expect at a minimum to have a winning season and then hopefully be in contention for a conference championship at the end of the year.
EM: Do you like the move to the Prairie North Conference and the addition of a few Class 2A teams?
Infanger: That’s the thing I like about it. There’s no point to look at the negative side of it and say, ‘oh, we play bigger enrollment schools now and it’s tougher.’ It is what it is. We’re excited about the challenge, and we’re looking at the positive side of it.
Now maybe we can get these 2A wins that we need so maybe we can get two home playoffs games. If we go 7-1 or 8-0 in a season, now we’re going to get two home games in the playoffs and not have to go on the road till that third game. That would be nice.
EM: How big of a challenge was it playing predominately a 1A schedule during the regular season and then going up to 2A for the playoffs?
Infanger: There’ a big difference when we go down to Pierz and you see all the extra bodies they have standing on the sidelines. Even the facility that they have compared to the schools that we typically play, you can tell we’re playing a little bit different level of team when we get to those 2A playoff games. That’s why it would be nice to play at home.