WESTBY — The Westby High School football team debuted a new field last season and christened it by earning another appearance in the WIAA playoffs.
The Norsemen only won three games, but winning their final two of the regular season was enough to get them into the Division 5 field and make them postseason eligible for the 24th time.
Westby put an experienced team on its new field last season. It will change gears this year as it tries to extend a streak of six straight playoff seasons while playing home games at 4 p.m.
“I think our identity is a bunch of young, hopefully, hungry guys,” said fourth-year coach Andy Hulst, who has guided all of his teams to the playoffs. “We had a good summer in the weight room, and a lot of kids wanting to get in shape.
“We feel OK. We just don’t have a lot of depth, and we don’t have a lot of experience.”
Junior running back Ryan Daines and senior guard Grant Dayton are the only offensive starters to return from last year’s team, which beat Black River Falls and Onalaska Luther to close out the regular season.
Daines, at outside linebacker, and Dayton, at inside linebacker, also make up two-thirds of the returning defensive starters. Cornerback Alex Gluch joins them as experienced players on that side of the ball.
The Norsemen offense will bank mostly on Daines, who saw his playing time increase at the end of the season. He brought speed to the backfield and gained 399 yards to go with five touchdowns in the final four games as a sophomore.
Senior Chevy Knight will also be called on to help with carries out of the backfield. Gluch steps in at quarterback in the Pistol-I offense after starting the first couple of games last year before Kyle Anderson returned from an injury.
“I think we’ll be pretty explosive with our run game,” Gluch said. “We’ve got two bruising running backs in my opinion. And we’ll have a good aerial attack.”
As good as Daines is, the Norsemen will depend frequently on Gluch’s passing ability to balance things out and take pressure off their unseasoned offensive line. Hulst says Gluch has a confident arm, and a bevy of talented receivers in sophomore Davontae Spears, juniors Sam Strangstalien and Gunnar Hanson and senior tight end Carter Bergdahl.
Spears, who is Westby’s quickest wideout and primary return man, will look to burn secondaries unknown to him.
The Norsemen will be anchored by the same cast of players on defense — with Daines, Dayton, Gluch, and Spears to be on the field for most snaps. Westby’s defense gave up an average of 26.3 points a game last season.
“I enjoy it,” Daines said of playing both ways. “I like playing football, so it’s just fun for me to play all the time. It’s a lot to remember, but we learn most of our playbook before we even get out on the field.”
With a small senior class of six, the Norsemen are relying a mixture of players to take over leadership roles.
“I feel like we’re all just like a family,” Bergdahl said. “In every Westby sport, we’re all close-knit and care about each other.”
That family vibe was tested the first time the Norsemen practiced with pads this summer, and ran a conditioning drill that had linemen and skill players crossing paths, with the option to take shots at each other. Some guys did.
The Norsemen open with a road game at Darlington, which was last season’s Division 6 state runner-up. They host Sparta in Week 2 and Platteville in Week 3.