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LA CRESCENT — The arcs of Michael Topp and Cole Bauer’s football careers are prime examples of what La Crescent High School football coach Ryan Vinzant and activities director Josh Mallicoat are trying to change.

Topp and Bauer played football in seventh and eighth grade before dropping the sport the next two seasons. Now, as juniors and with no varsity games to play before graduating, they’ve rejoined the program.

“We just wanted to get back into it because we remember a lot of good times playing,” Topp said.

Player retention is just one item on Vinzant’s mind as the Lancers build for the future. La Crescent has played without a varsity schedule this season because of a lack of numbers and concern for player safety, and it will be without one again next year, a decision made late last year. The goal is to field a varsity team in 2021.

Vinzant, of course, is glad to have Topp and Bauer — and every interested player — on his team this year. But he can’t help but think about the two years they took off.

“We keep telling each other as coaches, ‘God, I wish that they would have just kept playing all the way through,’” Vinzant said.

“That’s kind of the message that I preach to those middle school coaches. Your job as a seventh-grade coach is to bring all those kids back as eighth-graders, and your job as an eight-grade coach is to make sure all those kids come out as freshmen.”

To get things headed in the right direction, the Lancers, who still play at the junior varsity level, have undergone a season that mirrors a normal year in some ways but varies greatly in others.

La Crescent has 23 players on its roster: 12 freshmen, seven sophomores and four juniors. Vinzant’s goal is for 15 kids from each class to come out, though he understands the current difficulties of pitching varsity-less football to upperclassmen.

Topp doesn’t mind being without a varsity schedule — “It’s still football,” he said — and Vinzant views it as a unique leadership opportunity.

“(The juniors) can really make a huge impact on the shift of this program,” Vinzant said.

The third-year coach likes the leadership he’s seen his juniors, who include Aaron Grattan and Tim Rudvosky in addition to Topp and Bauer, and says they lead by example in practices, which have had a bit of a twist this year.

The Lancers still engage in regular practice functions. There are no shortage of drills — team or individual — and there is plenty of discussion on systems, schemes, alignments and technique. Vinzant scouts teams on Friday nights, albeit not opponents, to see if he can pick out something that might be useful for his team. The approach remains the same.

“We have varsity expectations for a JV team,” Vinzant said. “It’s a lot easier to lower the bar at one point than it is to raise it back up.”

But no varsity games and eyes on the future have allowed La Crescent to turn inward.

“We’re not scouting for (opponents). Our mentality isn’t necessarily about them,” Vinzant said. “We’ve got to take a look at ourselves and how can we add different things.”

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A key part of that reflective focus, Vinzant said, is ensuring players connect with one another, and the program worked to forge those bonds in the offseason.

La Crescent held two three-week, school-wide strength and conditioning sessions over the summer, and Mallicoat said more than 100 of the school’s approximately 400 students attended at least one of the sessions. Naturally, many football players attended, and Vinzant also made it a point to help players build relationships outside the weight room with trips to Root Down for yoga and Island Outdoors for paddle boarding and canoeing.

“(It was to) lighten it up a little bit, have some fun, but also spend time together,” Vinzant said.

“It’s a lot of camaraderie, and it’s a lot of fun,” Topp added.

The Lancers approach, when all pieced together, has led to relative success on the field, especially given the team was 1-26 in its previous three seasons. With one game left, La Crescent’s junior varsity is 3-3, and the Lancers are riding a two-game winning streak into their season finale against G-E-T on Oct. 14.

Challenges remain, as does room for improvement. Players are still learning the X’s and O’s, and Mallicoat has to configure a JV-only schedule. Not to mention the offseason is approaching, and Vinzant needs to retain players.

But Mallicoat and Vinzant are optimistic and believe they are moving in the right direction.

The program now runs the same system and schemes down through seventh grade, though it isn’t as complex at those levels. Mallicoat said the switch to no varsity couldn’t have come at a better time because of MSHSL’s two-year scheduling cycle, and he and Vinzant say players and parents have bought into the process.

“This was the best option for us to be able to salvage it and then rebuild it,” Mallicoat said. “There’s no guarantees, but it’s certainly the best option for us.”

It doesn’t hurt, too, that the team is experiencing some success.

“There’s an excitement because they’re in competitive games,” Mallicoat said.

“Success breeds success,” Vinzant added.

Topp hopes others at La Crescent will see the improvements that are being made and will be enticed to join and stay all the way through.

“There’s supposedly going to be more players from seventh and eighth grade coming up,” he said. “I hope they stick around and don’t just quit like I did.”

The future of the Lancers’ football program might depend on it.

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