LUSK – After 96 years of 11-man football, the Tigers move into a new era with the creation of the 1A 9-man league this fall.
Football purists and old-timers may think that the change “isn’t real football,” but declining enrollment and participation numbers are happening in many small schools. Niobrara County High School has hovered around 20 players for most of head coach Ryan Nelson’s tenure, but 27 young men have checked out gear and been practicing so far.
“We basically drop the tackles, so we’ve been working on how some of the angles will change,” said Nelson. “There’s a bit of apprehension doing it, but once they realize it’s still football the more comfortable they’ll become.”
Seniors Drake Lamp, Jasper Caldera and Aric Eaton are using their leadership to help steer the underclassmen in the right direction.
“We’ve got to build the young kids up instead of tearing them down,” said Caldera. “Positive reinforcement was mentioned by all three seniors and the coaching staff as important to team goals. Lamp added, “No matter what, we’re a team on and off the field.”
Three-time All-Stater Drake Lamp is set at tailback, with Walker Kupke taking over at quarterback. Caldera, a two-time all-conference lineman, is getting snaps as a fullback and Mason Wells is lined up at tight end. All-Stater Dylan Molzahn, All-Conference player Dayne Lamp and Riley Blackburn will anchor the line, while Eaton, Aiden Applegarth and Jayce Cummins will be slot/split ends.
“With five lineman returning with experience we’ve got to find a way to get our best nine athletes on the field,” said Nelson. “And all five are very athletic.”
Kupke missed last season with a broken collarbone, but as assistant Shawn Leimser noted, “He’s been running this offense since fifth grade when we started the peewee program.”
Despite the year off of the field, the junior has matured and filled out.
“I think he’s going to bounce back,” said Eaton. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger.”
Defensively, Nelson commented that a lot of spots will be determined by matchups as the season progresses.
“We’ll have some combination of four or five linemen/linebackers, and four defensive backs.”
Most of the teams on Lusk’s schedule have a history of passing attacks, so that is one area the Tigers need to improve on.
Molzahn, Wells, Blackburn, both Lamps, Kupke, Applegarth, Eaton, Caldera, Cummins, Colton Coffman and Collin Taylor should all fit into the mix.
In addition to nine freshmen, a handful of new young players have joined the program.
“With the drop, we suddenly have a bit more depth than in any of my previous years as head coach,” added Nelson.
“It could really be a good, fun season with lots of guys to play, and lots that want to play,” Skeen mentioned.
NCHS is ranked third in the Wyopreps.com preseason top five behind Southeast and Rocky Mountain, and ahead of Shoshoni and Wright. Lingle-Fort Laramie and Saratoga will also be tough matchups.
The Tigers will face Greybull in a scrimmage on Saturday at Kelly Walsh (1 p.m.). There is limited seating available and fans will not be allowed on the field.
The Trojans will send a team of sophomores/juniors to open Lusk’s new era. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 5 on Gibson Field at Fullmer Stadium. This game replaces St. Stephens as the season opener.