Few teams fell further from their perch than Heritage Hills during last year's season of COVID. Even fewer appear more determined than the Patriots to return in 2021.
"Last year was a pretty difficult year," says Heritage Hills junior running back Brayden Froetsch.
"It just wasn't that fun," says Heritage Hills senior offensive/defensive lineman Ross Tempel.
"It was just a difficult season," says Heritage Hills head coach Todd Wilkerson.
After back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, culminating with a trip to the 3-A state title game in 2019, Heritage Hills found out how the other half lived. As graduation, a string of injuries and Coronavirus depleted the once mighty Patriots, reducing them to a 4-and-6 finish, ending with a first round exit in the sectionals.
"We lost a tremendous senior group from 2019, with that run to the state final," said Wilkerson. "We had a lot of guys that had to step up that didn't have a lot of varsity experience. Then we had some hard COVID hits through the year. We played every game, but had a couple games where we had six or seven guys out. So our younger guys got a lot of experience. When I think about last year it was tough. But when your young guys get experience it's always good for the next year."
And that's what 10th year head coach Todd Wilkerson is hanging his hat on this season, beginning on offense, with a competitive quarterback derby.
"Camden Schipp is a junior," says Wilkerson. "He's doing a nice job. he's a competitior. You know, it's his first varsity experience. Preston Coop is a sophomore. He'll be backing him up, currently. But those guys are battling it out at quarterback."
No matter who lines up under center, they'll be handing off to a stable of running backs, led by Luke Rickelman, a senior coming off a disastrous knee injury, which short circuited a promising 2020.
"We're very young, most of our seniors are on the line," says Froetsch. "We've got good experience, so we should be ready. We're going to be very run-heavy. Just run the ball consistently up the middle, play after play. Knock it down their throats."
"There's a lot of juniors that got experience last year," says Tempel, "and overall, we're looking pretty good. We like to be run-heavy
and our o-line is a lot bigger than they were last year and we're looking very physical, so I'm very excited about that."
"We've got a lot of good skill guys," says Wilkerson." We have depth this year. We have guys that had great experience last year. Shane and Skyler Staples had a lot of carries last year. We've got Brayden Foertsch, who had a tremendous year in the off-season. He'll be a fullback. Brenden Chew will be a fullback. Luke Rickelman was an all-PAC running back, had a knee injury last year. So, we're looking for him to get healthy. But we've got good depth at our skill positions."
On defense, the Patriots will look to improve on a unit that gave up nearly 24 points a game in 2020. With seven returning players, including seniors Ross Tempel, Evan Bowling, and Ben Magnum, it should be a strength this season.
"I think we've got pretty good team speed," says Wilkerson. "Our linebackers are young, but they played a lot. So, experience on the defensive side and then a lot of guys that can run."
"We have a lot of guys that are very young," says Tempel, "and they have a lot of experience. They're coming out and we're all excited. We have big D linemen, that are hitting hard and our secondary is very, very fast coming to the ball. And if we come with full energy, we're going to be a tough team to beat."
"We've got some good senior captains," says Froetsch. "A lot of senior defensive linemen. We're pretty big. We've got a good coaching staff, so we'll be ready."
All that being said, Wilkinson has just one singular message for this proud program.
"Last year wasn't fun," says Wilkerson. "We didn't enjoy last year. We worked hard in the weight room in the off season. I think these guys are hungry. They don't like to have a losing season at Heritage Hills. We want to get back to the way we were playing back in 2018, 2019. Be a tough team to deal with on Friday nights."
It all begins Friday August 20th for the Patriots, with a road trip to Mount Vernon. That's it for sports tonight but Cam will be right back with a last look at your forecast right after this.