WOODWARD — While some teams eye a spot in the now-halved playoff system (16 teams will qualify this year as opposed to 32 in the past) others have set goals that, while attainable, will still pose a challenge.
Place Woodward-Granger in the later category. The Hawks are coming off a 4-5 season that saw the team outscored by an average of 25-14 each game, and a return to a winning campaign in one of the goals head coach George Ashman said his team has set.
“We realize we are not going to blow the doors off people, but if we are patient I believe we can put together a really strong year,” he said. “Madrid and Van Meter are two tough teams to open your season against, but if we play well and keep our heads up we can stay with those guys.
“The key,” Ashman continued, “is how are we going to play in the district? There are some good teams. some not so good and some we have not seen in a while. I think we can be very competitive and believe we have a chance to catch some people by surprise.”
W-G has been moved to a new-look 1A District 5, where they will be joined by Central Decatur, Des Moines Christian, Interstate-35, Mt. Ayr, Pella Christian, Pleasantville and Woodward Academy.
Only five teams in Class 1A had fewer pass attempts and only four had fewer passing yards than W-G last year as the Hawks were 37-of-88 for 461 yards and three touchdowns through the air while tossing five interceptions.
Just three seniors — Tanner Vermaas, John Stucker and Derrick Morgan — will suit for the Hawks, with a wealth of experienced juniors returning along with a few sophomores Ashman believes are steady to step up to the varsity level.
Junior quarterback Brendan Bird returns after a 34-83-5 year in which he totaled 433 yards and two aerial scores. His leading returning receiver is junior tight end Logan Canova, who caught just five passes for 45 yards.
Ashman promises to put the ball in the air more this season, but aeronautics is not now, nor has been, his preferred method of attack. That would be running the ball, and he has a weapon in hard-nosed senior Tanner Vermaas (5-10, 200), who bulled his way for 1,129 yards and 11 TDs on 244 carries last year. Junior Payton Tague, who ran for 132 yards on 17 rushes in 2015, will spell Vermaas at tailback.
Vermaas, a state-qualifying wrestler, is the prototypical beast, solidly built and not exceptionally speedy, but with enough burst to pull away and one of those backs defenders simply get tired of hitting as the game wears on. Despite having just one catch for five yards, he accounted for 56 percent of the Hawk offense in 2015 and will need to remain healthy if the offense is to tick at any kind of rhythm.
Juniors Austin Scharlau and Josh Saak returns to the fullback and slot positions, with Saak scoring twice and gaining 105 yards on 28 runs as a sophomore. J.P. Nixon and Stucker will both see time at wideout.
Sophomore Jackson Newland (6-0, 210), junior Joe Sturgeon (6-1, 230) and Dillon Fogarty (6-1, 210) are the likely starters at left tackle, left guard and center, with Perry transfer Devan Kirckman, a 5-9, 190 junior, to start at right guard. Starting right tackle Brody Easter (6-2, 245) will miss an unknown amount of time with an injury, pushing sophomore Alex Kirton (5-11, 265) into the junior’s spot.
The sudden and unexpected passing of Drew Jacobson has forced a reshuffling of the lines on both sides of the ball. Jacobson collapsed at a Dec. 2 basketball practice and died Dec. 7 from a rare heart condition.
“We all miss Drew and the impact he had on all of our lives,” Ashman said. “We will wear a ’58’ decal on our helmets this year to honor him. From a purely football standout — say if he was not here because he had graduated — he would have still left a big hole, and you add to that the special circumstances and it will be tough for our guys up front, but they will handle it, because Drew would have wanted them to.”
Scharlau led the team with 57 tackles last year and will be joined by Vermaas (50), Saak (45) and, likely, Kirckman, at linebacker. Kirton and Sturgeon figure to go at defensive tackle, with Newland, Fogarty and Canova fighting it out for the two d-end spots. Nixon and Stucker are the probable picks at cornerback, with the 6-0, 195 Bird at safety.
The defense recovered 19 fumbles last season but — unlike their rich tradition of backfield thefts — intercepted only two passes. Aside from the obvious — clogging the running lanes — it will be paramount for the Hawks to find a way to apply pressure to opposing passers and not allow the kind of time in the pocket that enables receivers to break into the open.
Vermaas was a Second Team All-State pick at punter by the INA and will return to those duties this year, with either Matt Hanson or Tague handling the kicking chores.
“I think one area in which we have really stepped it up this year is in our leadership,” Ashman said. “We have been much more disciplined in our practices, which is allowing us to get more done and is going to help us in games. I like out intangibles, and if we can remain positive, positive things are going to happen.”
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