The Chi-Hi football coaching staff has not been shy about challenging its team early on this preseason in practice.
And through the first few weeks the Cardinals have been up to the challenge.
Chi-Hi returns a strong cast of experienced players from a 4-5 team that last year was in a fight for the playoffs until the final night of the regular season.
“We’ve thrown a lot of things at them and they really haven’t blinked,” Chi-Hi coach Chuck Raykovich said. “They’re taking it all in stride which is really good to see.”
The Cardinals finished fifth in the Big Rivers Conference with a 3-4 mark and many underclassmen gained valuable experience on the field. Those underclassmen are now a year older, wiser and pushing to put Chi-Hi in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
“Because of the low numbers in last year’s senior class, a lot of the younger kids were forced to step up and play,” Raykovich said. “You take your lumps one year and the next year you hope you’re better.”
Offensively the Cardinals lose first team All-Big Rivers Conference and All-Chippewa County running back Codie Meinen after he led the team with 958 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but return most everyone else.
“Basically the majority of the year last year we played with one senior on offense, which was Codie (Meinen),” Raykovich said.
Nolan Hutzler enters his third year as quarterback and threw for 276 yards and a touchdown last year while running backs Matt Pomietlo (543 rushing yards, four TDs) and Tyler Bohland (182 rushing yards, one TD) logged plenty of carries a season ago. JD Czech (11 receptions, 144 receiving yards and one TD) and Pomietlo (10 receptions, 42 receiving yards) are the top two returning receivers for the Cardinals.
Up front the Cardinal offensive line returns in tact, a unit with 2017 First Team All-Chippewa County lineman Nate Hayes along with Jake Thompson, Orion Caneff, Nathan Makuck and Sawyer Lubs.
Defensively the team also brings back experience, led by first team All-Big Rivers and All-Chippewa County defensive lineman Rico DeLeon.
DeLeon led the team in fumble recoveries (five), sacks (three) and was third in tackles (36). Will Butak (26), Luke Schemenauer (25), Dane Weiland (17), Luke Franz (14) and Logan Erickson (11) were also among tackle leaders a season ago and return on the defense.
“Defensively we have eight starters back from last year. We have a lot of kids coming back,” Raykovich said.
The Cardinals also enjoy a regular season schedule with six home games and three road games. Those three games away from Dorais Field aren’t far as the team travels to Carson Park in Eau Claire to face Eau Claire Memorial on Sept. 14 and Eau Claire North on Oct. 5. The Cardinals open the Big Rivers Conference season at Menomonie on Aug. 31.
“We consider Carson Park our second home,” Raykovich said of the familiar confines in Eau Claire. “It’s like having eight home games.”
One thing the Cardinals will face week in and week out wherever they play is strong competition. Six of Chi-Hi’s nine regular season opponents reached the playoffs last year with three (Holmen, Menomonie, Rice Lake) winning at least one playoff game. The Cardinals open the season with Holmen (Aug. 17) and Medford (Aug. 24) before the BRC gauntlet kicks off in week three against the two-time defending league champion Mustangs.
“The Big Rivers is as good as any conference in the state top to bottom,” Raykovich said. “There’s not a team in our league that’s afraid to go play anybody.”
The Cardinals got their first live action against an opponent on Friday when they held their annual scrimmage at Dorais Field. As the Cardinals open the season next Friday with the Vikings, Raykovich said the most important thing his team can do is stay healthy. Two years ago the Cardinals lost five starters to injury in their season opener for a team that was fresh off a postseason trip to the Division 2 semifinals.
“That can’t happen. You can’t lose five starters in a game. You can’t afford to lose anybody,” Raykovich said. “The Packers in the same boat, the Badgers are in the same boat. You don’t have three cans of quarterbacks, five cans of d-linemen and six cans of offensive linemen. You can’t open up a new can of them. What we have is what we have.”