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Stratford head coach Jason Tubbs addresses his team following the conclusion of morning practice Tuesday at Stratford High School. High school football teams across the state began practice Tuesday in preparation for the opening game of the season on Aug. 23. (Photo by Paul Lecker/For Zaleski Sports)

By Paul Lecker

For Zaleski Sports

The 2018 football season ended for Spencer/Columbus with a Level 4 playoff loss to Stratford, which then went on to lose the Division 5 state championship game the following week to Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs.

While having incredible seasons, the late-season losses left bad tastes in the mouths of both players and coaches.

Tuesday was a chance for those returning players to fell like they were officially back in business and could do something about erasing those scars left from last year.

Spencer/Columbus, Stratford, and the rest of the high school football teams in Wisconsin were allowed to start practice on Tuesday morning as everyone prepares for scrimmages on Aug. 16 or 17, and official Week 1 games on Aug. 22 or 23.

Spencer/Columbus and Stratford will again meet in a Week 1 matchup, as they did last year when the Rockets rolled to a 27-7 win. The two teams will play another nonconference game to open this season before moving into the same football conference in 2020 as they will play in the Central Wisconsin Conference Large Division.

“It’s exciting. We’ve been waiting for this day for quite a while now,” Spencer/Columbus coach Jason Gorst said. “The guys are very enthusiastic, the numbers are significantly up and that’s always a positive thing, and so far, there is a lot of focus and a lot of learning taking place.”

Stratford head coach Jason Tubbs was equally pumped up for the opening day of the season.

“Now these guys (returning) get to be the seniors and the leaders, and they’re really excited,” Tubbs said during the team’s workout behind Stratford High School. “The coaching staff is excited. We’ve got four coaches, myself included, that have their own kids out here playing. Whether it’s senior or a seventh grader, those coaches are involved and out here giving it all their effort as well.”

As the two teams round into shape during the 17 days leading up the season opener at Stratford on Aug. 23, filling in the leadership roles held by graduated seniors is as important, if not more so, than replacing their play on the field.

For the Tigers, who last year reached the state finals for the first time since 2008, lineman Dylan Schoenherr and running back Kade Ehrike were honorable mention all-state players as Schoenherr as company led the way for a 2,000-yard rushing season from Ehrike.

While replacing the team’s workhorse, and lone senior offensive lineman from a year ago are big tasks, so is finding new leaders on the team.

“You lose Dylan Schoenherr, Kade Ehrike, Okley Wrensch and the rest of the crew of seniors, that’s big shoes to fill, but we’ve had some depth in spots,” Tubbs said. “We’ve been very deep at running back, quarterback, at our end positions. On our line we have five seniors, four of them that were starters last year. We’ve got to find some depth behind them, but other than that, it’s a nice fun group and we just plug in and go.”

One of those seniors this season that will need to step into the leadership role is quarterback/safety Max Schwabe. He said he is excited for things to get going.

“We’ve been waiting since last November to get back on the field,” Schwabe said. “We’ve been talking about it all year long. I loved the seniors from last year. They were all really good leaders and did a lot for us. We all miss them, but we’re having some juniors that haven’t played much step in and take their roles, and fill the leadership, as tough as that is.”

Senior lineman Ben Barten, who will be playing next fall at the University of Wisconsin, is happy with the commitment he has seen from his teammates heading into the 2019 season.

“This year has been different,” Barten said. “We have kids fully committed to this team because we saw how close we came last year. Losing in the (championship) game that heartbreaking, we can’t go through that again.

“Kade and Dylan were our honorable mention all-state players, and that’s hard to fill, but we have a lot of kids that have prepared themselves to be able to be out there with anyone.”

Spencer/Columbus is in the same boat as lineman Logan Zschernitz is off to play Division I football at Northern Illinois, and three-year starting quarterback Jarred Mandel and versatile linebacker/running back Carson Hildebrandt have all graduated.

“The juniors from last year have all stepped up,” senior running back/outside linebacker Hayden Bauman said. “I’ve taken on a greater leadership role. Guys like Gavid (Kilty), Austin Bacon, Andres Rodriguez too.”

Gorst said the competitive nature of camp will help create new leaders and make the Rockets a better team going forward.