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EPC gridders don't want to be absent from playoff field again

EPC quarterback Levi Wolf looks to avoid a tackle in the backfield during a recent practice.3 / 3

ELMWOOD - When both high schools had separate football programs, both Elmwood and Plum City got used to making the WIAA playoffs.

Plum City was a playoff team from 2005-2010. Elmwood had an even more extended postseason run from 2002-2011.

In their first season together as a co-op program in 2012, Elmwood/Plum City made the playoffs too. But the Wolves just barely got in with a 3-3 Lakeland South Conference record. EPC finished with a losing record at 3-6. Last season EPC also finished 3-6 but missed the playoffs with a 2-4 mark in conference play.

"We didn't like it," veteran head coach Jerry Hannack said bluntly. "We're trying to get back, not just to the playoffs but to also playing winning football."

To do so, Hannack says the team, which has 18 returning lettermen and five starters, has to become tougher mentally and physcially. It has to run the ball and stop the run. It also has to play with the discipline to avoid the kind of mistakes in turnovers and penalties which proved costly in agonizingly close LSC losses to Shell Lake and Clear Lake.

"I believe we will run the ball better this season," Hannack said. "We have to get better up front and we're working hard to do this. We'll be more athletic on the line this season."

One paper it would seem difficult for the Wolves to commit to a ground game and improve themselves stopping the run. EPC lost three All-LSC linemen in D.J. Wheeler, Roger Connell and Bryce Bock (All-LSC linebacker Tyler Freyholtz also graduated along with Colin Arneson, Kasey Krueger, Jake Ingli, Matt Hill, Brett Caturia, Mark Anderson, Zak Joyce and Tanner Anderson), who was second in the team in rushing behind returning All-LSC quarterback Levi Wolf and led the team in both scoring and tackles. But the paper also says EPC has six players over 200 pounds and another three close to it to build a solid line of scrimmage. Senior Nick Bechel (6-3, 280) will be the center with fellow senior John Hendon (6-3, 230) at tackle with senior Dylan Hovland (6-1, 180) and junior Trevor Maxwell (5-9, 202) both at guards. The other tackle spot has to be decided on. These will be the blockers for Wolf, who goes into his senior season having led the team in not just passing yards with over a thousand but also rushing at nearly 700 yards. They will also block for backs like junior Hogan Kernstock, senior Ryan Asher and senior Martin Nunez.

Wolf would certainly hope an improved ground game will take defenders' focus off himself exclusively. Getting the ball to EPC's leading receiver Alex Boyer will also have the same effect. The All-LSC wide out caught 30 passes for 517 yards and four touchdowns and led the team in all-purpose yards.

"Alex has to be a playmaker for us, there's no doubt about it," Hannack said. "Levi will still be a playmaker too but hopefully we'll have more balance on offense. We're giving him more freedom to makes changes in our offense with audibles. He's a senior leader and he should have more control and have a voice in what we do because he has the experience."

Besides just being more physical, EPC's defense also made technical changes during the offseason to make it more effective. Wolf will start again at stroing safety where he returns as the team's leading tackler. But he'll be in a hybrid position which will allow him to also be where the linebackers set-up shop in the middle of the field. Besides aforementioned linemen up front, Nunez will join them as a defensive end as well sophomore lineman Austin Turner. Senior Chris Gift (6-3, 180) will also see playing time on defense and backing them up will be Josh Nunez, Asher and Hunter Freyholtz. Other defensive backs besides Wolf are Boyer and junior Darek Nelson at the corners with Kernstock at free safety.

"It's a different defense which we spent a lot of time creating in the offseason," Hannack said. "Basically what it comes down is creating sets which put our best athletes in positions where they can be at their best and make the plays we need to win."

Hannack foresees defending LSC champ Alma/Pepin along with Clear Lake as the top teams in the conference this season.

"We think can join them, " Hannack said. "Obviously that's easier to say than go out and do. But we've already seen better intensity and team chemistry in practice. Knowing our personnel and what their potential is if we play the way need to play to be successful, we're confident we're not going to be sititng out the playoffs again."