Eau Claire, Altoona (WQOW) -- Eau Claire Regis and Altoona are looking to be factors in the Cloverbelt Conference race in 2017.
The Ramblers won the conference title last season, and they just kept winning in the playoffs, capping off an unbeaten season with an impressive win over Darlington in the WIAA Division 6 state final.
But that title is in the past. There are new challenges awaiting the 2017 Regis team. Head coach Bryant Brenner and his staff are looking for new guys to step into key roles, after a deep and talented senior class graduated. With the opener coming up in just over two weeks, this is an important time for teaching, and emphasizing what's ahead.
"This group isn't worried about defending the past," Brenner says, "last year was last year, 90% of our team is gone, this year's focus is attacking the future, trying to get better each and every day. Hopefully by the end we can experience some significant growth. Because we lost so much, we know we're going to encounter a lot of challenges, we probably lose 90% of our team last year, 6 or 7 of those guys are going on to play college football, that gives you an idea of how much we lost. It's a lot of new guys, it's going to be a big challenge."
The Ramblers have a new motto this season, "Committed to Culture." Regis has definitely established a winning culture under Brenner, having made nine straight trips to the WIAA playoffs, three trips to the state finals, along with last year's championship. If the postseason streak is going to get to ten, former backups will have to step into starting roles.
"We've got a lot of guys competing for playing time," says Brenner, "I think we only have two or three guys back with significant experience, so there's a lot of open spots and lot of competition going on right now. A lot of that is probably going to work itself out in the first few weeks of the season. Hopefully we've got a system and a culture in place that allows us to improve. One thing that did help us last year was the extra practice, you know going to State you get an extra month of practice. We do feel our younger kids got a lot of reps, but like I said, they haven't won a lot of games in the past, so they need every rep they can get."
Nine months to the day after that win in the state finals, Regis will kick off the 2017 season on Thursday, August 17, when the Ramblers travel to Cloverbelt rival Fall Creek.
Altoona finished fourth in the Cloverbelt last season, and advanced to the WIAA Division 4 playoffs for a second straight year. The Railroaders have a new head coach this season, former Eau Claire Memorial assistant Steve English, who was a defensive lineman at the University of Iowa in the late 1990's. English is looking to keep the program moving forward, while putting his own stamp on things.
"We're bringing is an excitement to the program, an intensity to the program, a physicality to the program," says English, "our guys are going to get off the ball, they're going to move people, we're going to hit holes hard and we're going to bring a sense of dedication to what they're doing because rely on the person next to them to do what they need to do. We've got quite a few good skill guys out here, we've been very impressed with their football knowledge. I think our system is going to highlight those guys and put them in positions to win."
There have been some good things going on in the Altoona program in recent years, but English wants his guys to take it to another level.
"We want to get beyond 5-5," says English, "we want to start establishing some dominance, we want to start making a name for ourselves in this conference, start beating teams that we're not supposed to be, or that we've had a difficult time beating right now, and building that belief that that's a possibility for us."
"It's definitely different this year we're a lot more energized, we're a little more excited for the year," says Altoona senior defensive back Mitch Adrian, "I think it's a little more strict, but I think that's better."
"We have a new offensive playbook, so it's kind of tough to learn that, but I'm excited," says Railroaders senior running back Colton Wright, "we've got a bunch of new linemen coming in, and they're doing good work up there, so it should be a good year."
Altoona kicks off the 2017 at home on Friday, August 18, when the Railroaders will host Cadott.