Chippewa Falls, Menomonie (WQOW) -- Two of the perennial powers in the Big Rivers Conference are led by the two longest-tenured coaches, Menomonie's Joe LaBuda, and Chuck Raykovich of Chippewa Falls.
Chi-Hi has made back-to-back trips to the WIAA playoffs. In 2015, the Cardinals made it to Level 4 in Division 2, and then last season, Chippewa lost a Division 1, Level 1 game. Raykovich is entering his 32nd season at Chippewa Falls, and he says this team's identity will be a work in progress prior to the season.
"That's something that develops in the first two weeks of the season," says Raykovich, "you will find something, and I won't find it, those kids will, they'll find something they can hang their hat on, whether it be team unity, family, offense, defense, right now we're just feeling our way and that the sign of the Chippewa Falls Cardinals is yet to be made, and it'll be made in the next two weeks."
Chi-Hi will open the season with a pair of non-conference games, beginning August 18, at Holmen.
"I think that Holmen game is good for us, it's good for them," Raykovich says, "it's good competition, it's somebody out of our league, it's somebody that does similar things that a lot of teams in our league does and bottom line is they've got good athletes, they're well-coached, and you know it's a good contest, it's a good tuneup for us."
Last season, Menomonie got to Level 4 of the Division 2 playoffs, before a loss to eventual state champ Brookfield East. Joe LaBuda is beginning his 29th season leading the program, and his teams have gone to the postseason 28 straight times. The 2016 Mustangs were a senior-dominated team, and while there are some key players returning, there are a lot of new names on the depth chart.
"We're going into a season where we don't have a quarterback that's every taken a snap in a varsity game, and we don't have a receiver that's every caught a ball in a varsity game," LaBuda says, "we were a senior dominated team last year, we had all four receivers were seniors, our quarterback was a senior, and we lost an all-conference running back in Mitch Weber, so you hope you have some surprises that some of these young guys really step up."
This Mustangs senior class includes the likes of Wisconsin recruit Mason Platter, a linebacker, along with running back Justin Evans, and tight end Brett Lecheler.
"We have a great group of seniors that's a great group of kids, that you know, really care about each other," says LaBuda, "they're really great people, and that's what we're trying to build our foundation off of this year is the type of kids we have in our senior class, and hoping the young kids jump on and follow their lead, 'cause we've got a really good group of seniors."
Menomonie kicks off the season on Friday, August 18, when the Mustangs travel to Oshkosh North.