For years, Tomah High School football has been defined by power − bulldozing offensive linemen and big, mobile fullbacks who rip gaping holes between the tackles.
Tomah’s brand is going to change in 2019.
Coach Brad Plueger and his staff are bringing the spread offense to Tomah to keep up with the trend of speed and space in high school football. The playbook is thinner, the fullback has disappeared and players are tasked with making decisions as the play develops.
“It’s a lot about reading and reacting in space,” Plueger said. “It’s where all sports are getting to − getting your athletes in space and winning the one-on-one matchups.”
Plueger said it was time for a change. After finishing third in the Mississippi Valley Conference with a 5-2 record in 2015, the Timberwolves have won just three conference games in the past three seasons. The coaching staff believes that utilizing a roster that’s deep at receiver will make the change work.
“This is about the type of kids we have and the changes in football,” offensive coordinator Matt Weber said. “Even with the (Wisconsin) Badgers, you see less guys between the hashes. They’re spreading them out a little bit more so they get a better view of the defense.”
Tomah’s receivers, not surprisingly, are enthusiastic about the change. Kade Gnewikow caught 14 passes for 158 yards as a sophomore last season and expects to see the football a lot more in 2019.
“I get to play more my type of offense − open grass,” said Gnewikow, who will line up in the slot. “I’ll be reading the field and finding the open slots. Last year we had set routes all the time. Now we have to be more of an athlete and read the defense.”
The Timberwolves have high hopes for junior wideout Boone Mathison, who has played with the varsity since his freshman season but missed half his sophomore season with injuries. Despite the time on the disabled list, he’s still the top returnee from last season (16 receptions, 197 yards, one touchdown).
Perhaps the biggest transition comes at center, where returning starter Colby Von Haden will be delivering 90 percent of his snaps via the shotgun or pistol. He said the long snaps will be an adjustment but also likes the simplified playbook.
“We don’t have as many formations, so we don’t have as many confusing words out there,” Von Haden said. “We get our play and go.”
The coaching staff is still deciding who will take the snaps. Justin Gerke was the starting quarterback last season and completed 79 of 174 passes for 1,015 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He’s being pushed by fellow junior Evan Long, who quarterbacked the jayvees last season.
“Both are getting equal reps in practice,” Plueger said. He said there will be more run-pass option plays and anticipates the quarterback will pile up more rushing yards than last season.
Plueger said running the football is still critical. Last season, injuries decimated the backfield, and no running back gained more than 547 yards. Plueger hopes senior Nathaniel Spears will assume much of the load in 2019. Last season, Spears gained 220 yards on 61 carries. Junior Evan Westpfahl also figures to get significant varsity carries.
The defense will run a 4-2-5 formation and will be led by senior linebacker Connor Perry, who was the team’s second-leading tackler in 2018.
One of the team’s strengths will be the kicking game, where Gnewikow returns as placekicker (five of six on extra points, one field goal) and Westpfahl returns as punter (five of 12 punts downed inside the 20, 32.3-yard average).
Von Haden said there’s a renewed sense of optimism in the preseason and that the players look forward to running a more dynamic offense.
“Everyone is excited about it,” Von Haden said. “We have the ability to have explosive plays and be more competitive.”