The UW-La Crosse football team’s last road trip was a 125-mile bus ride to Iowa for a first-round NCAA Division III playoff matchup against Wartburg College (Iowa) back in November.
Their next, which began this weekend, takes the Eagles well over 4,700 miles — as the crow flies — to Italy for a week of practices, exhibitions and sightseeing. It’s required an extra level of preparation from coach Matt Janus.
“I’m on Duolingo,” Janus said. “I’m on a 104-day streak. I can probably read a little bit of signage. I can’t speak it at all and probably can’t understand when people speak to me, but I’ve got at least a little bit.”
The Eagles, with a party made up of 135 players, coaches, managers and others, will visit Florence, Pisa, Siena and Rome during their international stint bringing authentic American football to Italy.
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The trade off? An authentic look at one of the most influential cultures in the world.
“It’s going to be such a unique life experience for these guys,” Janus said. “They’re going to see stuff that they’ve never seen before. A lot of our guys haven’t been to a foreign country. We’ve got some guys that have never been on an airplane. They get to take in that kind of experience, they’ll be with their buddies and teammates traveling all over.”
Junior linebacker Adam Quam is one of those who has never traveled outside the country, but one of the sport he stared in at Holmen High School will take him across the Atlantic.
“I think being able to have this experience while going over the pond is great, but being able to bring 70 or 80 guys that you’re friends with and experiencing that together is huge,” Quam said. “I’ve never been out of the country myself. Being able to go and play the sport I play in college is pretty cool.”
UW-L also gets the chance to play a pair of exhibitions against teams from the second division of the Federazione Italiana Di American Football. After a joint practice Wednesday with Guelfi Firenze, the Eagles will play Trappers Cecina on Thursday. The team will take a few days off before playing Petroriani Roma on Sunday.
The trip is more than a sightseeing vacation for players, it’s a chance at live reps they normally wouldn’t get until the fall. It’s a benefit Janus thinks will be give them a leg up on fall camp and the season to come.
“It’s been huge,” Janus said. “There’s no restrictions from the NCAA. In our spring ball portion, we can’t do 11-on-11 practices. Now we’re going into practice where it feels more like fall camp. I was telling our guys that they see how important this is going to become in the fall because we’re 10 practices ahead.”
Springing into action
The Italy trip follows the conclusion of UW-L’s spring camp on Friday with Janus and offensive coordinator Michael McGuire playing a comparison game of last year’s co-WIAC championship winning team.
But before McGuire can truly tell how his offense will fair, he’ll have some open spots to fill.
“I think the big thing we’re finding out this spring, and it’s just confirming what we thought, that we’re losing a lot of experience on the offensive side,” McGuire said. “This year we’re not near as experienced but our talent level is really good. It’s just going to be a matter of them taking their talent and using it on game days.”
The Eagles will be replacing their leading passer from last season in quarterback Cade Garcia, their leading rusher in running back Joey Stutzman and their leading receiver in wide out Tyler Stubbendick.
“It was weird right away when we came back after the season and got together,” senior wide receiver Jack Studer said. “We lost a lot of familiar faces but the younger guys have stepped up. They’ve been working hard in the weight room and on the field and it’s paying off.”
Everyone’s roles in the offense may become clearer after the trip to Italy. It’ll be the first chance for many players to be starters or play in a live game environment.
“That’s going to be really important for us,” McGuire said. “There’s no substitute for live snaps. Being able to get in some game environments, even if it’s overseas or just in practice in pads, you can’t substitute those reps.”
UW-L will bring back senior defensive lineman Jack Kelly, last season’s WIAC sacks leader with 10½. Janus’ team was second in the conference in sacks in 2022, and the top spot might be in reach with a big bad defensive line.
“The biggest difference I think we’ll see with our defense is on the defensive line,” Janus said. “Coach (Mitchell) Collicott has done a phenomenal job with them. Just the sheer size of them and watching them improve on a day-to-day basis from a physicality stand point, that group is going to be something to watch. And it has to be in our defensive system.”
James Krause can be reached by email at James.KrauseJr@lee.net or on Twitter @jkrausepro.