Kirst, running game to pace Jaguars
By Greg Bates
ASHWAUBENON – Last season was a tale of two halves for the Ashwaubenon football team.
In the first five games, the Jaguars didn’t register a win and were outscored 185-45. In the final five games, the Jaguars registered three wins and outscored their opponents 194-105.
A big reason for the late-season success was that the Jaguars recovered from injuries or were out of quarantine.
“We’re a Division 2/3 in a Division 1 conference and us more than anybody, we can’t afford to get too injured otherwise it really hurts our chances,” fourth-year coach Brian Ryczkowski said.
“We’re slowly building up our program so that we have more depth at all of our positions — that comes with winning and students recruiting others through word of mouth that playing football is the thing to do. We’re getting closer, but it takes time.”
Ryczkowski is hoping to carry over that solid play in the final half of the games into this season. The Jaguars have some good pieces back from the team that finished 3-7 overall and 3-4 in the Fox River Classic Conference-North standings.
It all starts on offense with third-year starting quarterback Boone Kirst. As a junior, Kirst was 125-for-205 passing for 1,806 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also added three rushing scores.
With so much experience under his belt, Ryczkowski could open up his playbook a little more for Kirst.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to win a game and to get first downs,” Ryczkowski said. “If we get good weather and we like matchups then we’re going to unleash. But it’s Wisconsin and weather’s not always going to be great and I believe that you have to run the ball and stop the run. So we’re going to get after it in the run game and try to run the ball on people and use play-action pass to help the quarterback out.”
Ryczkowski is excited about the possibilities of his offense, which averaged 38.8 points per game in the final five contests.
“Offense is a rhythm unit where you need time to find out who to get the ball to and how to work together,” Ryczkowski said. “When we had such a revolving door at some positions, it was hard to get that feeling. When we got healthier toward the end of the season, you could kind of see that. Offensively, it’s always about getting your best players the ball, whatever way possible. We found some success through the air and we’re excited about Boone coming back this year. I thought our ground game got a lot better and you can kind of see that this fall so far.”
Ashwaubenon will have to replace workhorse Andrew Pludeman in the backfield. He put up 1,075 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior.
“We’re pretty fortunate to have what we feel are two of the better running backs in the conference and even better for us, one’s a sophomore and one’s a junior,” Ryczkowski said. “Jacob McVane was a pleasant surprise last year — he got some carries for us in the playoff game. Gus Newel is a sophomore and has one of the fastest 100 times in the area as a freshman. I think if we can find a seam for either one of those guys, it’s going to be fun to watch. The only problem is there’s only football to go around — we need to find enough touches for both of them.”
McVane had three carries for 65 yards in Ashwaubenon’s season-ending 40-34 loss to Luxemburg-Casco.
Kirst’s top receiving target from a year ago, Rhett Jonas, who put up 946 yards receiving and seven scores, graduated. However, back is Caden Van Duyse, who had a solid junior season with 38 catches for 500 yards and three touchdowns.
“We think Vandy’s going to step into that slot receiver role that Rhett had last year, and it’s a spot that takes a very talented player,” Ryczkowski said. “Some of the stuff we did with Rhett we’re going to look to do with Vandy this year.”
During the first week of practice, Ryczkowski was searching for a No. 2 receiver to emerge so if Van Duyse gets double teamed, Kirst will have another viable option.
After missing his junior season with an ACL injury, Eli Zollar will be back as the team’s top tight end. Ryczkowski believes he’ll be one of the better tight ends in the area.
Ashwaubenon has a good set of offensive linemen back. Four guys logged valuable experience a season ago.
Mitch McKinnon will be at center, Kaden Jahnke and Cooper Hucek will man the guard positions and Avery Jobelius and Troy Dietzler will be at the tackles.
Defensively, the Jaguars have five starters back.
New defensive coordinator Trevor Campbell, who was on staff last year, has some new ideas in a scheme that resembles what former TCU coach Gary Patterson successfully ran for so many years.
“We’re just trying to build a defense that can stop a Pulaski offense, stop a Bay Port offense and stop a De Pere offense — kind of the three extremes of the conference,” Ryczkowski said. “You’ve got to be built to find a way to hold up against those three, and if you can stop those three, you can put yourself in a position to beat anybody.”
The Jaguars will have starters and leaders back at all three levels of their 4-2-5 base defensive scheme.
Adam Newel, who recently committed to Division I North Dakota, will anchor the line. Ryczkowski is hoping his captain will demand two blockers and free up someone else to wreak havoc on quarterbacks.
Dietzler will start on offense and rotate in on defense. At 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, Ryczkowski believes he will also garner double teams.
Charlie Anderson will be a difference maker at linebacker, moving from the outside to inside this season.
The secondary returns Rhett Mehlberg and Michael Nelson.
“Overall, whether it’s the first 11 or the first 22 in on defense, we’ve got a lot of guys that are vying for some spots and some of those guys are really impressing us early on,” Ryczkowski said.
In the first week of practice, Ryczkowski was impressed with how well Easton Hockers played at outside linebacker.
The coach said there are still some position battles on defense that won’t be decided until after his team’s scrimmage with Appleton North on Aug. 12.
Ryczkowski knows it’s going to be another grind in the FRCC this season. The usual suspects should be the teams to beat.
“De Pere and Bay Port won the last two in normal falls — Bay Port won in the fall of ’19 and then De Pere in the fall of ’21,” Ryczkowski said. “Then I think Pulaski’s tougher than heck. They were right there in the running. Everybody else except those three, we’re scratching and clawing trying to find a way to get into the top three somehow. If you want your name in the conversation then you have to beat those teams. … We’re trying to get ourselves in the conversation as perennial conference champion or top team. But this is a tough conference, so we know what we’re up against.”
If Ashwaubenon wants to position itself in the conference mix, it will have to get out to a strong start with its schedule. Three of the Jaguars’ final four games of the regular season will be against Pulaski (on the road), Bay Port (at home on homecoming) and De Pere (at home on senior night).