The Hastings football team went 7-1 in the regular season before a second-round sections loss to St. Thomas Academy last fall, their best season in years. That team was led by a strong senior class that saw several go on to play college football and was simply dominant on both sides of the ball.
However, that senior class is gone and the Raiders’ depth is a question heading into the season due to number disparities between the classes.
“The big thing is probably just our overall depth will be down a little bit just because of our numbers, we have a small junior class and that in and of itself will be a big part of what we need to deal with all year long,” said head coach Dana Strain. “Probably opens up some opportunities for us to call up some sophomores just to make sure we have the right depth. Having said that, the big thing is we’re losing a good senior class and last year we had two good classes working together. I feel good about the kids we’ve got, we just don’t have a lot of depth this year.”
Hastings averaged 24 points per game and gave up less than seven, not including their two losses to the Cadets, behind a solid overall defense and punishing rushing attack. However, they have to fill holes at many of their skill positions. They lose both quarterbacks who saw significant time last year -- Sully Levos and Hunter Kazmierczak -- which tentatively leaves seniors Colby Zak and Dylan Wagner, along with rising junior Jake Sandquist, to compete for the job. With the loss of Corbin Leflay they lose more than 2,000 total yards of rushing, receiving and returning along with 19 total touchdowns.
“You wish you always came back with everybody returning and it never happens quite the way you want it,” Strain said. “We feel good, so we looked at last year and we lost a good group of kids who had a lot of starting experience, but in a lot of cases we had guys behind them that we felt good about.”
“It’s one thing to come in without playing experience, it’s another thing the group we’ve got doesn’t have a lot of playing experience but we feel good about them,” he continued. “I’m not overly concerned anymore than I would be in any other year, like you said the skill positions in particular we have to sort that stuff out. You take a look at a Corbin Leflay for example, we’re going to have to committee that and not necessarily expect to replace him with one guy. We like our group but it will just take us a little time to sort it out.”
That committee will most likely include seniors Josh Anderson and Devon McSorley, who both saw limited rushing attempts last year, as well as any new faces in the backfield. However, Hastings does return two of their top pass catchers from last year, seniors Jackson Kirchoff and Thomas Ritt, who will no doubt provide a safety blanket to whoever wins the quarterback job.
“Even in addition to Jackson and Tommy on the outside, we have a few others that kind of fall in that category of we like them but they just weren’t starters last year,” Strain said. “A pretty veteran group of receivers, which is big for us, and we’ll hang our hat on that. The receiver group should be a strength for us.”
The Raiders return three starters from their offensive line, all of whom Strain said are capable of playing both ways but were not asked to last season. The defense does lose several key contributors like Noah Kullmann, Amar Thomas, Trey Petrich, Godswill Pepple and Kevin Klosowski.
One area Strain will not have to worry about is the kicking game. For the first time in several years, Hastings starts camp with confidence in its kicking game as senior soccer player C.J. Brenny returns as kicker and Strain said he is very comfortable with their long snapper, holder and whoever takes over punting duties from Kazmierczak.
Strain singled out a couple seniors who he believes will play a key role for the team this year that fans may or may not know about.
“A guy that I don’t know if anybody knows about is Will Johnson, we expect him to have a really good season for us,” he said. “He didn’t get a lot of starting action last year because he was behind, on both sides of the ball, some good players but he is certainly one who will play well for us. You’ve got a couple other seniors in Justin Tverberg and Izzy Arnold who we feel will play well for us who didn’t get a lot of opportunities last year on Friday nights.”
Team captains for the season are Danny Brown, Alex Foster, Tverberg and Billy Utecht. The leadership council is made up of those four, Arnold, Johnson, Kirchoff, Ritt and Joe Nauer.
The only change in the Raiders’ schedule this year is that they will play North St. Paul rather than Hill-Murray. Once again they start the season with Henry Sibley, this year at home, and some games to circle are Friday, Sept. 6, at Park; Friday, Sept. 27, at St. Thomas Academy; and then they end the regular season at home versus Apple Valley on Wednesday, Oct.16.
This will be Hastings first season playing on turf, but Strain said it will be a small adjustment as his team already plays several games a year on turf on the road. He said it will just be a matter of getting his players used to it before game time. Unlike in the past, playing on turf no longer requires as special pair of cleats or shoes.