It's all about the Fruitland Grizzlies this week for the Wood River High School football program. The Wolverines are hunting for bear, but the Grizzlies could be elusive prey.
Coach Mike Glenn's 2006 Wood River varsity opens its eight-game regular-season slate Friday, Aug. 25 at Phil Homer Field in Hailey with a 7 p.m. non-conference game against one of the state's best 3A football programs from Fruitland.
Fruitland (35-14 for coach Bruce Schlaich over 6 seasons) is the pre-season favorite in the 3A Snake River Valley that includes 2006 state runner-up Weiser. The Grizzlies went 9-2 last fall, only losing twice to Weiser including 24-7 at Weiser in the State 3A semi-final round.
It's quite a challenging opener for a Wood River squad that second-year coach Glenn is still molding into a contender after a 4-6 rebuilding campaign of 2005. How the Wolverines perform will be an indication of Glenn's oft-repeated mantra about off-season conditioning.
Glenn said, "We think we can be a really good football team, but the first half of a football season is all about what you do in the off-season. We know Fruitland is an outstanding, well-coached football team. They execute, they're physical, they blitz every down and they're fast.
"It's nice to start with Fruitland, a game that doesn't count in the playoff picture. Having Fruitland means we're bringing a real tough, hard-nosed team in here. This year we want to get past the state play-in game. To do that we'll have to finish higher in the conference standings."
Higher than last fall, when the Wolverines knocked off Jerome for the first time in 30 years and finished third in the four-team Great Basin Conference West. That only meant Wood River drew Fifth District champion Pocatello (11-1) in the state play-in game—and Pocatello swallowed up Wood River 55-7 en route to second place in State 4A.
Unfortunately the only relatively safe position in the West conference for a good play-in draw to advance into the Final Eight in 2006 happens when you win the conference, and reigning champion Minico of Rupert (7-3) will be extremely difficult to dislodge from the top spot.
Glenn said, "Standing in the way is Minico—King Kongs in the conference. But I think we could challenge. We showed last year that we can get it going a little. Sooner or later we may break a few dishes."
Certainly you need experience to make a move, and some key veterans are returning for Hailey. There are 22 seniors on the roster, 11 newcomers and 11 who are returning. There are 11 juniors, with six returning. Of the 13 sophomores, 11 are back from last year's freshman squad.
Wood River is entering a pivotal grid season compensating for the loss of two key players on offense and defense—all-time single-season rushing leader Scott Bartlett (1,318 yards and six 100-yard rushing games last fall) and top tackler Carl Browning. Both were first-team Great Basin West All-Conference picks.
But offensive coordinator Glenn and his coaching staff of John Rade (defensive coordinator), Jeff Loomis, Pete Naumes and Charley Miller are encouraged about this year's turnout of between 60-70 players.
Team speed has improved and more weightlifting has paid off, coaches said. Glenn said, "Our team is stronger. We'll be more physical."
Some of the players
On offense, Wood River will be throwing more to take pressure off its running game, Glenn said. "We're finally doing the things we want offensively as far as a balanced attack is concerned. We have some inexperience in the backfield but I think they'll be good as it goes on."
Last fall Wood River averaged 18.1 points per game but 20 of its 26 touchdowns came on runs from scrimmage, spearheaded by Bartlett (13 TDs, 78 points). You can expect last year's total of just three touchdown passes to increase in 2006.
Starting quarterback will be 6-1 junior Danny Kramer, although Kramer will sit the first game against Fruitland due to his recovery from summer scope surgery on his knee, a growth-plate problem. "We'll be looking for Danny to throw the ball downfield. His leadership and experience will be important," Glenn said.
Sophomore Michale Brunker, last year's freshman team "Most Inspirational" player, is a good athlete with a solid grasp of the offense, and he'll get the starting nod at quarterback for coach Glenn Friday night.
"We need to be able to throw the ball against Fruitland because it's hard to run inside against their high-pressure defense," said Glenn. "Michale throws the ball where it needs to go."
Junior Matt Libert, a 6-0, 180-pounder, is starting tailback while 6-1, 185-pound senior Travis Beckman and 6-1, 205-pound senior David Pinkard are the halfback candidates.
Rangy Erik Jacobson, a 6-5, 235-pounder who Glenn calls a Division 1 prospect, is older and wiser at tight end and on defense in the stud linebacker position. Glenn said, "Erik is quicker, faster and has matured."
Wolverine wide receivers include seniors Jeff Conover, Danny Ward and Carter Stewart. Ward is particularly valuable because he was last year's Special Teams "Player of the Year," and became a first-team All-Conference pick at defensive back.
Glenn said the offensive line has good size and it starts with 6-4, 285-pound junior left guard Corbin Miniard. The coach said, "Corbin is poised to have a real good year. He is more aggressive and has grown physically and in maturity."
The rest of the starting offensive linemen are 6-0, 225-pound junior center Tyler Stocks; 6-2, 290-pound senior right guard Tyler Hendricks; 6-1, 195-pound senior right tackle Chris Chapman; and 6-2, 200-pound senior left tackle Casey Bennett.
Special teams are a priority of coach Glenn. The addition of 6-3, 180-pound senior Cory Rutkowski, who previously played soccer, has been a big plus for the kicking game. "Special teams have drastically improved with Cory, who can put it in the end zone every kick. This game is all about field position, so special teams are a big deal," Glenn said.
The Wood River defense is in a tough spot against Fruitland. That's because it's tough anytime going against a team that specializes in misdirection running, no less doing it in the first game. Fruitland used misdirection to produce not one but two 1,000-yard rushers last fall.
Glenn said, "We're really strong in the secondary. Some of the young guys up front will take their lumps early but we'll grow during the course of the season."
Jacobson is installed at one side of the defensive line as stud linebacker and 6-1, 200-pound senior Anthony Quarles is on the other side, at weak side end. Glenn said about the Quarles impact, "Anthony charges up the group. He brings The Rage."
In the interior line are nose guard Miniard along with two senior-class newcomers. They are 6-1, 195-pound Bryce Reese and 6-1, 205-pound Pat Hurley. Linebackers behind the front five are 5-11, 190-pound junior Collin Hand and 6-0, 185-pound junior Jared Rade, last year's top defensive player on the prep team.
Remembering Carl Browning, who made up for a lot of mistakes everywhere he roamed, the new Hailey linebackers have tough shoes to fill. Rade, son of the team's defensive coordinator, has tremendous potential and has really grown physically over the last year, Glenn said.
In the secondary are strong safety Jeff Conover, free safety Danny Ward, right corner Carter Stewart and left corner Drew Anderson, a 5-10 senior. They might find themselves making a lot of tackles if the Grizzly runners break through Friday. Glenn said Fruitland 6-2 senior quarterback Trent Gatzemeyer doesn't seem to throw the ball a lot.
Other things to think about:
After sorting through what Glenn called the sifting sands of player turnout in the last two weeks, Wood River has decided to field only a freshman and varsity team this fall. That means there won't be a junior varsity team again this season.
"We don't have enough kids to field three teams, and we'll probably have 30 to 32 freshmen when school starts. Plus, we just don't have the staff for a junior varsity team," said Glenn, a strong proponent of having three teams at the 4A level. "We just need a few more bodies for three."
Regarding the Great Basin West, Jerome (0-9 last fall, 2-17 two seasons) is likely to improve with first-year coach Gary Krumm who formerly molded strong grid teams in Wendell, Buhl and Twin Falls. Wood River goes to Jerome Oct. 13.
Meanwhile Burley (4-5 last fall, 5-1 league two seasons) is expected to be less successful, having lost 23 seniors from the team that walloped Wood River 41-13 in Hailey in 2005.
But this week's Wolverine focus is Fruitland, a squad that lost All-Staters Shawn Parker (1,000-yard running back) and 275-pound lineman Chris Ingebritsen. But the Grizzly defense that yielded only 10.5 ppg is led by returning 6-0, 185-pound senior linebacker Jake Fabricious, a second-team All-Stater
Fruitland and Wood River have played football only twice before, in 1977 (a 14-12 Wolverine victory in Hailey) and 1978 (a 32-6 Fruitland home rout).