ONALASKA — When looking back on the past six seasons, Onalaska High School football coach Tom Yashinsky sees a lot of talent in the Hilltoppers’ receiving corps.
Jalen Sample, who had 14 touchdown catches in 2015, and Tyler Hughes both racked up more than 1,000 yards in 2016 before Ray Heilman did the same two years later.
Landon Peterson used his speed to quickly establish himself as a deep threat, and Hudson Weber became one of quarterback Ayden Larson’s go-to targets last season with nine touchdowns in eight games.
And that’s not to mention players such as Noah Fredrickson, Landon Skemp and Hank Olsen along the way.
Year after year, Onalaska seems to effortlessly replace its graduating playmakers on the outside, and that’s no accident.
“They do a great job of teaching the younger guys,” Yashinsky said. “I think over the past seven years, six years here, we’ve had a really good run of wide receivers because those older guys teach the younger guys.
“We don’t just look at a Hudson or a Landon and say, ‘Alright, well when those guys are gone, we’re in trouble.’ We develop the next group so that when it happens — or last year when guys have to miss, we went against Adams-Friendship last year and I think we were missing four of our top five receivers — the other guys are still ready to go.”
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So as Yashinsky, Larson and Co. prepare for this season without Weber and Peterson, who graduated, they have no intention of slowing down as the receiver group reloads, as Larson puts it.
“It just says a lot about where our program is right now, with what Yash has built,” said Larson, who is entering his second season as a starter after throwing for 1,337 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior in 2020. “Every single year, it’s reload. It’s not a rebuild, it’s a reload.”
“We’ve got some unknown guys that I think people are going to catch on to pretty quick, which sometimes it’s good to be a little under the radar,” Yashinsky added.
Some of the Hilltoppers’ wideouts have already made a name for themselves, though.
Michael Skemp returns for his senior season after hauling in 20 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns in four games last year, and junior Nicky Odom, who has flashed his athletic ability on the basketball court, figures to be a factor at receiver while also getting touches outside of the passing game.
“Nicky Odom makes two or three catches every day that just make us shake our heads,” Yashinksy said. “He’s a kid that, have a camera on because he’s going to make some one-handed catches this year. He can darn near dunk a basketball, and the kid’s 5-(foot)-6.”
Odom said route running has been a focus for him this offseason as he gets ready to face corners who can match his speed. Skemp, meanwhile, has placed an emphasis on reading defenses and finding soft spots so that he can be a reliable outlet for Larson, a role that belonged to Weber and Peterson last season.
“It’s a new thing for me. It’s new plays that I’m learning this year,” Skemp said. “It’s probably going to be a challenge the first couple games, but I’m ready for the challenge.”
Skemp’s size — at 6-5 and 215 pounds — and speed — Yashinsky said he nearly hit 23 mph on the team’s timing system this offseason — make him an all-around threat. And when paired with Odom, whom Yashinsky said teams will need to keep track of, Larson has good options.
But his options don’t stop there. Juniors Matty Burnette and Sy Smith and sophomore Adam Skifton are also expected to make an impact, and Larson said developing chemistry with the newer faces was crucial over the offseason.
“I like where we’re at right now,” Larson said. “Those guys are really talented. They really have a lot of potential, as well.”
For his part, Larson has grown more comfortable making reads in the middle of plays, which clicked for him after Onalaska’s win over Adams-Friendship last season. Odom said the senior has improved on deep throws, and Yashinsky has been impressed with the way he takes care of the ball.
“I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen him — and Adam Skifton, our second quarterback, and even Aiden Sommerfield, our third quarterback — I haven’t seen them throw a pick yet in team drills, in 7-on-7,” Yashinsky said. “Like they’re not even throwing balls that are close to getting picked, which for us is a good thing to see.”
“(The) biggest thing for me is my footwork,” Larson added. “I feel like whenever my footwork is right, I feel like I’m throwing a spiral well and I’m accurate with it. So it’s a lot of footwork for me.”
So while the Hilltoppers have other important holes to fill offensively — Colton Hougom on the line and Albert Romero at running back are just two examples — it’s easy to see why Larson is confident in the team reloading.
Eric Lee can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @ByEricLee