RICHMOND – Huddled on the field wearing its gold practice jerseys and maroon helmets, the Richmond-Burton football team listened as coach Pat Elder called them together at the end of Monday’s three-hour practice.
The Rockets spent the end of practice working on an option offense they’ve run for the past eight years, except with the season-opener against Johnsburg looming, R-B’s starting backfield is still up in the air. While last year’s team had to replace 19 starters, the Rockets return six players on offense and four on defense this season.
Senior quarterback Danny Rygiel is back and his knowledge of the offense is important after they lost 2,600 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns to graduation. Working out the running back and fullback situation is one of Elder’s top priorities.
“That's the big thing for us is to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle go together,” Elder said. “We've been trying to get as many reps as we can, get as good of looks as we can and build off that.
“We're green back there, but we've known that for nine months.”
Elder is optimistic that the backfield will continue to get better as the season progresses. Four players – juniors Luke Brinkmann and Brad Boelkow and seniors Nate Hansel and Kyle Kirby – are vying for playing time at running back.
Fullback is a three-man competition with seniors Vince Battaglia and juniors Marcus Duha and Tyler Talatian. It’s been a learning process as most of the guys taking on backfield roles haven’t previously played the positions.
“It's a loss, yeah, but we have fresh guys,” senior offensive lineman Bryce Wagner said of the backfield situation. “They know what they're doing, so it's not going to be a huge loss to us. Hopefully it's like we pick up where we left off.”
Part of the reason R-B has found so much success the past few years is its ability to replace key players on offense. Since 2008, the Rockets haven’t lost more than four games in a season and compiled a 34-3 record from 2009-11, which included a Class 4A state runner-up finish in 2011.
The pressure to consistently perform at an elite level every year hasn’t fazed the Rockets.
“I love the pressure, honestly,” Wagner said. “It shows that people care. They expect us to do good and we want to do good for them.”
The Rockets aren’t satisfied with last year’s 7-4 record and an appearance in the second round of the playoffs. The Rockets are looking to reclaim the Big Northern Conference East Division title.
“I'm getting more confident as I'm playing and I feel like if we play our game and don't think about the pressure we'll do fine,” Rygiel said. “I like to know we're expected to go far into the playoffs and do well during the regular season.”
For that to happen, the Rockets’ option offense will need to lead the way. Senior offensive lineman Eric Paparigian expects the line to open holes for a backfield still coming together, and Wagner said while the “big hogs up front” don’t always get credit for an offense’s success, they make it their mission to open gaping holes on every play.
“The offense really does set the tone,” Paparigian said. “It always starts with the offense. When we can make big plays, it helps the defense out, so we're always looking for the offense to start games strong.”
For R-B to continue its reign as one of the area’s best teams and make a deep postseason run, Elder believes his team must play mentally strong football. But if the compliments he’s heard over the years about how hard the Rockets’ battle on the field continue this year, a successful season should follow.
“What we have been fortunate to have happen is our success has helped create hunger in our kids and pride in our kids,” Elder said. “That's what we have benefited from and that's been good for Richmond-Burton football.”