Heading into the 2016 season, the expectations were high for the Swanton Bulldogs after coming off a year in which they won their first NWOAL football title since 1995 and captured their first ever playoff victory. They were able to duplicate that success this season.
And although they came up short of a league title, thanks to the resurgence of Patrick Henry with the return of former coach Bill Inselmann, the Bulldogs will get another chance at the postseason. Swanton, the fifth seed in Division V Region 18, will hit the road to take on fourth-seeded Northwestern High School out of West Salem this Saturday at 7 p.m.
The Huskies will give Swanton a taste of something they have not seen much of this season – an effective spread offense. According to Swanton coach Mike Vicars, who is no stranger to playoff football, Northwestern passes the ball 60 percent of the time.
“When you throw it deep as much as they do, that sets up big play potential for the offense every time they do that,” said the veteran coach. “We need to limit that. We need to make sure we get lined up right, play assignment football in the secondary, and obviously find a way to pressure the quarterback. They do have a back who can run it too, so it will be a stressful night for the defense.”
As to the run game, through week nine of the season, junior tailback Isaiah Peterson had 448 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Senior quarterback Brock Thut had five touchdowns on the ground through nine games.
The leading receiver for the Huskies is senior Brandon Reed who had 755 yards and eight TDs. Next is fellow senior Tristan Ammon, who through nine games had 694 yards and six TDs.
Northwestern finished the season at 8-2, however, they dropped two of their last three games. But, there is a lot to like about this group, both offensively and defensively, said Vicars.
“Coach Mike Thut has been there a long time and his son Brock is the QB that has thrown for over 2,000 yards and 24 TDs going into last Friday. He has some very quick receivers,” said Vicars of the Huskies.
“They have nice size. On defense they are rugged and physical. They play a 3-5-3 (and) are led by a fine OLB/S Ryan Schwartz. He is really good. They have nice size up front that will certainly be a big challenge for us. All in all they play hard.”
Swanton will counter with an experienced group of their own. It is a squad that has 12 seniors back from last year’s team that won a playoff game over Waynedale 38-28, before falling in a highly contested battle with Edison in the regional semifinal, 17-15.
They are determined to not let their season end prematurely.
“Right after we lost to Edison last year, a large group of kids got to work for this year and they never stopped,” noted Vicars. “Our seniors led that charge, and several of them really transformed themselves into really good players. We feel like our guys understand the urgency of this moment and how every second is precious from here on out. They know the 2016 Bulldog Football team will end at some point. Now, it is their mission to keep it around as long as they can. That seems to be their focus right now.”
The Dogs will send out a three-headed monster in the backfield, led by sophomore Michael Lawniczak who finished the regular season with 1,051 yards and 20 TDs.
They also have seniors Tim Rankin and Chase Avalos. Rankin tallied 701 yards rushing and eight TDs on the season, while Avalos had 411 yards and nine TDs.
Swanton junior quarterback Marek Spiess had somewhat of an up and down year, but still managed 14 touchdown passes to only five interceptions. His favorite target by far is 6’5” senior Gunnar Oakes who caught 38 passes on the season for 697 yards (18.3 avg.) and 10 TDs.
“This has been a very fun group to work with. They’ve worked hard and that hard work has been rewarded,” said Vicars. “Hard work always pays off, just not always when you want it to. For this group it has. We feel really good about this group of guys. We are playing physical defense, have run the ball well, our passing game has improved all year, and our kicking game has been very solid.
“This team’s greatest strengths are its mental mindset and their closeness with one another. They have been a special group.”
When it comes to this point in the season the mental part of the game becomes even more important. The Dogs will have to be well prepared in order to advance.
“Bruises are bruised, bumps are bumps, it’s getting cooler outside, rains a little more…But we have to look past all that and strive to be our best every day,” said Vicars, referring to the atmosphere surrounding playoff football. “Not easy. We face a very heavy passing team this week. We haven’t seen a lot of that this year like we sometimes do. We have to go back all the way to the 7 on 7 season, so it will be challenging to be ready.
“We need to do what we do on offense and be strong in our kicking game. It is a long road test. Much of this week is mental – we need to be mentally tough to get to week 12. What an exciting week for Swanton.”
Reach Max Householder at 419-335-2010