DAYTON — The preparation for Steve Hanson’s first game as Tongue River head football coach hardly involves the Wright Panthers. The Panthers will line up across the field from Hanson’s squad Friday in the season opener, but Hanson admitted there hasn’t been much focus on this week’s opponent.
The battle for the Eagles comes from within.
Along with Hanson, who spent previous seasons as a Tongue River assistant, Friday’s matchup will be a first varsity contest for most guys on the field. The Eagles return just one player with extensive varsity experience. The team graduated 11 players and has just two seniors on this fall’s roster.
“Our focus for the last two weeks and our focus for this week has been on the Eagles and not the Panthers,” Hanson said. “We’re going to be focused on them Friday, and we’re going to try to play fast. But our focus has been getting our schemes right for Friday night.”
Wright finished toward the bottom of the barrel last year. They went just 3-5 and only won one game in the conference. The Eagles beat the Panthers 49-6 in week six. The Panthers were sixth in 1A in total offense and 10th in total defense.
So Hanson kind of knows what to expect from Wright, which he admitted was a bonus in the week-one matchup. Having an inkling of Wright’s game plan allows Hanson and his staff to keep building from within and not overload a group of a players that’s going to have to learn a lot on the fly.
As much as the coaches have prepared their players for varsity football, Hanson noted that it’s never enough. You can’t be over-prepared.
“It’s incredible, there’s a balance in athletics that exists between team-tempo time and the really slow-paced teaching time,” the coach said. “With the amount of young guys we’ve got, they need those full-speed reps to get up to game speed, but they also need that really basic, sit-back fundamental time.”
Due to the personnel changes within the Tongue River roster, the Eagles will look to establish the ground-game this year. That will also alleviate some of the chaos that game-tempo brings, and Hanson hopes it grinds on the Tongue River opponents.
Junior Luke Stutzman will line up under center for the Eagles and will be asked to control the tempo. Stutzman had just two passing attempts last season but has picked up the offense through heavy reps in fall camp. The Eagles have seven running backs listed on their roster, as well, and Hanson’s counting on a committee of backs to eat up yardage night after night.
Even last year, Wright (22) accumulated more first downs than Tongue River (18) in their lone matchup. The Eagles will look to burn some clock, and Hanson expects his team to have to grind out some offense against a tough Panthers attack.
“They’re going to be tough,” Hanson said. “They’re going to be a spirited bunch, because 1A is as open as it can be as far as the talent that was lost last year throughout all the schools.”
Hanson has high expectations for his team this year despite the lack of experience and loss of key assets. To meet those expectations, though, he said the focus is going to have to be even more intense to make up for the lack of reps.
“The community’s kind of excited to see what we’re going to do,” Hanson said before the start of the season. “But these guys are going to have to figure it our real quick how they’re going to respond to the crowd, to the lights, to everything. It’s going to be a very different feel. The learning curve is pretty tight.”
Friday’s matchup will be an early test to see where the new-look Eagles stack up in 1A. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. at Tongue River High School.