10/24/2017 7:27:00 AM T-Birds looking for answers after frustrating end to season
Dean Hall/Lakeland Times
From left, Garrett Holtz, Nick Kizorek and Michael Ouimette walk out to the field on crutches at halftime of a game against Mosinee on Sept. 15. Seventeen players missed games due to injury in 2017.
The 2017 football season started with tremendous optimism for Lakeland Union High School. A new field and a new outlook had the Thunderbirds flying high.
It felt like the year that a playoff drought that dated back to 2009 would come to an end, and for good reason. Lakeland started the year 2-1, which included defensive stands at River Valley Bank Field in the waning moments to beat Hayward and Medford, a team which had won seven games in a row in the series.
Then, for the second season in a row, injuries began to mount. At one point, the T-Birds were missing 17 players due to ailments and it came to a head in a Week 8 game against Marquette, Mich., in which they were missing 10 starters. With the depth on the team depleted, Lakeland went into a slide which saw the team lose mental focus at times and eventually lost the final six games of the season to finish dead last in the Great Northern Conference.
"We had a lack of depth and losing six straight to end the season is very hard," LUHS head coach Dan Barutha said. "There's just a bitter taste in my mouth at the end of the season with the way it ended. Knowing the senior class we had this year, the captains that we had, a lot of the talent that we had - I would say a sense of bitterness at the end of a season that looked so promising. Injuries and a lack of depth became frustrating."
Injuries happen in any sport. Lakeland's boys' soccer program endured a similar fate this fall, and of course, last year's injuries in the football program are well-documented.
Sometimes injuries aren't preventable and it leaves a team in a state of helplessness.
The T-Birds lost starting quarterback Michael Ouimette to a torn ACL in practice, Tyler Carroll later missed a game due to an injury suffered in practice, and both were examples of freak injuries.
Other injuries Barutha felt may have been prevented if players had been in better shape entering the season. The goal of the program is for players not playing another sport in the winter and spring to make 80 percent of the weight room sessions and that did not happen consistently.
"Injuries are going to happen and there are freak things that occurred," Barutha said. "There are things, though, that our guys did not properly prepare for. In our final team meeting we went over a 45-minute presentation where we talked about the good, the bad, the ugly from the season, what level of commitment guys need to be doing, where they need to be at in terms of our weight room program. If you want to be great, there are no choices ...You're only as strong as your strongest leader and your weakest link and we had a great divide in there. So there needs to be a greater commitment to the program, more of a commitment to each other and comment that I referenced that's hanging on a sign in our weight room that I think is very fitting, very poignant, is, 'To improve my team, I must improve myself.'"
One of the areas the lack of overall weight room commitment was on the defensive side of the ball.
Lakeland allowed 461.5 yards of total offense per game in GNC play, which is 37.5 yards per game higher than any team in conference history. The T-Birds also allowed 331.7 rushing yards per game and 42.8 points per game, both ranking as the third-highest in GNC history.
"I feel like at times there was a lack of communication," Barutha said. "There were struggles with stance, alignment and assignment all season. From that standpoint, it was very frustrating. Having to plug and play guys in different spots and not getting opportunities to mesh because of injuries didn't make matters any (better). We didn't execute as well as we needed to. In terms of the game planning process, I thought we were good there. There just needed to be better communication between the staff, in terms of responsibilities kids had, where kids were lining up, we ran into some questions later in the week and some of those things certainly played a factor this year."
While the defense regressed in Barutha's second year at the helm, the offense improved.
At points in every game this season Lakeland was able to move the ball, regardless of the fact that it had three different starting quarterbacks and an injury-depleted running back corps.
The T-Birds finished last in the GNC in rushing, but much of that was due to playing from behind. Conversely, they led the GNC in passing, with Carroll leading the conference with 819 yards in just three starts, and Ouimette was fourth with 262 yards in just two conference starts.
Carroll also had 1,514 all-purpose yards and 17 total touchdowns, while Lakeland boasted the top three receivers in the conference.
Ray Rentmeester had a breakout season with 52 catches for 747 yards and seven touchdowns, while Jake Rexroade battled nagging injuries all season and still made 38 grabs for 392 yards and two scores, and Garrett Holtz had 23 catches for 241 yards and two touchdowns despite missing three games due to injury.
"I think the biggest turning point for our offense was when our offensive coordinator (Matt) Krueger and coach (Justin) Nimsgern on the defensive side of the ball, and myself went down to the Tony Franklin System Clinic in Dallas in February," Barutha said. "It was three days of intensive football, breaking down the entire system that we run - players, plays, practice organization, everything that you could think of - and we were the only Wisconsin coaching staff down there. We were being taught by Division I college coaches and state championship-level Texas high school coaches. We, as a coaching staff, try to be on the cutting edge of things and we certainly try do what's best for our program. I personally like to pull things from people that have had success and from higher levels of football that can fit our program."
Barutha also said focusing on the defense, much like the offense last winter, will be one of the focuses this offseason.
Lakeland loses eight seniors, including Carroll, Holtz and six other starters, but there is a significant amount of talent returning.
Ouimette returns with two more years of eligibility, while Rentmeester and Rexroade become seniors, along with other key starters such as Ian Valliere and Chris LeSavage on the line.
Optimism will undoubtedly be high again next summer, and if injuries in bulk can be avoided, a playoff run is reasonable.
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.