PREP FOOTBALL: Changes have MLA clicking
MOUNTAIN LAKE -- It's been a year of change for the Mountain Lake Area Wolverines.
From switching to 9-man football to joining a new conference to altering its co-operative agreement and changing its playbook, Mountain Lake Area is thriving in the postseason.
The Wolverines are back in the state tournament for the first time since 2002.
At 7 p.m., Friday, Mountain Lake Area meets Grand Meadow in an MSHSL Class 9-Man State Tournament quarterfinal game at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester.
Wolverines coach Tim Kirk has noticed some differences in the 9-man game.
"Nine-man football makes it more competitive for the kids to get on the field. The players are forced to work harder, if they want to play," Kirk said. "I think it makes us better because we have more depth on our roster. When we were playing 11-man with a roster in the low 30s, I would look on the sideline and there would be nobody who was physically ready to play. It should make offseason training a must for serious players."
Some of the plays used in 11-man football don't translate to the 9-man contest. Kirk knew he would have to make some changes in strategy, but he wanted to keep it simple.
"We've had to get used to some new things because some plays don't work the same way," Kirk said. "In 11-man football, you can have an extra lineman, a seven-man front and an extra running back in the backfield. In 9-man football, it forces you to change blocking schemes. The spacing for wide receivers is different."
Averaging 39.3 points a game, the Wolverines have a triple-threat backfield of junior tailback Andrew Hempeck, senior fullback Ryan Klassen and junior quarterback Carter Kirk.
Hempeck is rounding into form after missing Week 1 with an injury that lingered throughout the regular season. He led Mountain Lake Area with 245 yards and four touchdowns in a 53-28 Section 2 title victory over Nicollet last Friday. Hempeck is the Wolverines' rushing leader with 939 yards and 11 TDs on 115 carries this season.
"We kind of eased him in after a couple of weeks of having a bad hamstring," Coach Kirk said of Hempeck. "We have really needed him here at the end of the year because he is a very good athlete and competitor. He is a big reason why we're having the success we're having."
Hempeck said the chemistry in the Mountain Lake Area backfield has been difficult to stop.
"Some teams try to take one of us away," Hempeck said. "If they take away Ryan or Carter, I know I'm possibly going to have a good night. If our opponents key on me, Ryan or Carter are able to step up and run the ball effectively for us."
Carter Kirk is a dual threat to run and pass. He is the second-leading rusher for Mountain Lake Area (710 yards, 17 TDs, 123 carries), while Klassen adds another consistent presence out of the Wolverines' backfield (707 yards, 6 TDs, 107 carries).
"Last year, Hempeck played more at wide receiver and he was the only one who started both ways," Coach Kirk said. "Carter played mostly offense and a little defense.
"Even though we're playing 9-man and we're in a new conference now, a lot of the teams knew Carter for being a tall kid who throws the ball. They probably prepared for the passing game but, in reality, we like to line it up and run the ball."
Carter Kirk, who has thrown for 1,349 yards and 18 TDs this season, has seen how speed can be an asset of the gridiron.
"Andrew has worked hard in the offseason to become a faster runner. That's what Ryan and I have also worked at," Carter Kirk said. "I think we compliment each other very well because any one of us can rush for 100 yards on any given night."
Klassen said the Wolverines' offseason weightlifting program has helped Mountain Lake Area.
"Lifting has been a big key to our success because the added strength helps to bounce off defenders, run past them with our cuts and to break through tackles," Klassen said.
Coach Kirk credited Mountain Lake Area's offensive line -- seniors Chris Heffele (guard), Josiah Stoesz (tight end) and Tyler Friesen (tight end); juniors Josh Grev (center) and Vince Johnson (guard); and sophomore Eric Wenner (tight end) -- with creating huge running lanes for the Wolverines.
"The front six guys we use on the line basically didn't play at all for us last season," Coach Kirk said. "We had an all-senior line in 11-man that graduated. After replacing those linemen, I have to credit these kids for doing a great job of buying into what we teach. When you have a brand new line -- no matter how much talent you have -- you never know how it's going to work."
Johnson, an accomplished wrestler and weightlifter, is the largest of the Wolverine's linemen at 190 pounds. The rest of them are 180 pounds or less.
"For not being big, they work well together and they have learned a lot of footwork, which has been another reason for our success," Coach Kirk said. "We have a lot of athletes who are making plays, but they can't make those plays until it all starts up front."
The Wolverines dealt with strong football programs in Hills-Beaver Creek and Edgerton/Ellsworth in the Southern Confederacy Conference's West Division in 2012. The Patriots and the Flying Dutchmen, the 2011 Class 9-Man state champions, are the only two teams to defeat Mountain Lake Area (9-2) this season.
The Wolverines have been impacted with new talent.
Stoesz and sophomore kicker Caleb Bargen are two new additions to Mountain Lake Area football. Both are students at Mountain Lake Christian, which signed a co-operative agreement to supply players to the combined football team this fall. The Wolverines had a co-op agreement with Butterfield-Odin through 2011.
"It's worked out great because all of the kids from both schools know each other, they have played football together in summer leagues and they go to church together," Coach Kirk said. "They have a lot of great athletes at Mountain Lake Christian who just never had the chance to play football before. I'm glad to see them play and also have success because that makes us better."
Carter Kirk agreed.
"We have known each other, but we had not been really close friends until now," Carter Kirk said. "But we have gotten a lot closer because I know they love the game of football. And I'm happy to have them with us."