DAYTON — Every season, Tongue River football head coach Steven Hanson has a pretty good pulse of his squad. He knows who will play a large role, who needs to step up and who could surprise in order for the Eagles to soar.
Hanson will finally begin to receive some affirmation Thursday at 7 p.m. as TR opens its season in Moorcroft in a battle with the 2A Wolves.
“This is really the first big test,” Hanson said. “We finally get to measure up against a team for four quarters and see what we got.”
The Eagles open the season on the road for the first time since 2014. TR has won its last four season openers, and quarterback Luke Stutzman believes there are certain advantages with opening away from home.
“It’s something you gotta learn how to do with kind of showing up, getting rid of the bus lag and getting your mind right in the short time you have,” Stutzman said. “There’s definitely less distractions, so it’s definitely easier to get your mind right.”
Stutzman returns to an Eagles team that is eyeing a bounce-back year. TR finished 2017 with a 2-6 record, which included five straight losses to end the season.
The Eagles are just two years removed from an appearance in the state championship game, and while Hanson would love nothing more than to conjure up that magic again, he first wants to establish a winning mentality within his team.
“You don’t ever really replace those kids that were on the 2016 team,” Hanson said. “It’s pretty rare for a 1A team to have that kind of talent, consistently. And that’s where your culture comes in. That’s the one thing I love about high school football. You have kids that pick what jersey they will wear based upon somebody they saw play. There’s still a lot of our guys who look up to those veteran guys that aren’t there anymore. But their spirit, their ghost, stays on the field, and I think that’s a real important part of the program.”
Hanson and the Eagles had one less day during game week to prepare for Moorcroft. The Wolves — who haven’t logged a winning season in a decade — are fresh off a 3-5 season.
The small community just east of Gillette is known more for its success on the wrestling mat than the gridiron. Many of those kids, however, play both sports, and that gives Moorcroft a unique identity.
“They’re scrappy kids,” Hanson said. “They’ve got a good wrestling heritage. They’re tough little dudes. They don’t have any big, physically imposing 270-pounders that are going to get in the box and out muscle us. They’re going to play hard, and we know they’re going to play hard for four quarters. For us, the name of the game is going to be a little bit of a chess match, putting some of our better players on some of their weaker players.”
TR will not have every player available come Thursday. A few Eagles got injured in their scrimmage against Greybull last week, and Hanson is hoping they will be ready for the home opener next week.
But the Eagles that will suit up Thursday, Hanson is confident they can go on the road and play a brand of football Dayton can learn to love this fall.