La Crosse enters final year of 11-man football

La CROSSE – La Crosse’s tradition-laden history as an 11-man school ends after this fall. It’s possible 2019 marks the last year with Jon Webster as the head coach after he took over as Leopard principal.
La Crosse has annually been one of the state’s smallest enrollments among 11-man programs. Still, the Leopards have earned state runner-up showings in ’11 and ’13 with Webster, a Leopard alum. As well, La Crosse went to the semifinals in ’12 and has six quarterfinals showings between ’06-16.
The Leopards captured double-digit victories every year but one from ’06-14. In the last four seasons, La Crosse has posted records of 3-6, 5-6, 6-4 and 3-6. In the final two games last fall, the Leopards had just 13 players dressed. Webster is 78-31 entering his 11th year as head coach.
Webster, and La Crosse’s administration of Rob Holopirek and Bill Keeley – also a former Leopard head coach – talked about moving to eight-man.
“We had to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing what is best for our kids?,” Webster said. “And that’s really what it boiled down to. ‘Us fielding 20 kids going against schools that have 40 kids out, is that really what is best for our kids? Are we giving them a chance to be competitive and be successful?’ And when we looked at all that stuff, we just decided that now was a good time for us to go to eight-man.”
This year, La Crosse has an experienced group back with 10 offensive and nine defensive returning starters. Senior quarterback Hunter Morgan is a three-year starter under center. Senior lineman Kalen Thielenhaus and sophomore running back Colby Stull are among the key returners. La Crosse is expected to have a sizable improvement this fall in its last year of Class 1A football.
“It’s kind of sad,” Morgan said. “I hate seeing us going to an eight-man, but that’s what’s best for us, but I just want us to go out with a bang this year. I want us to go all out for 11-man.”
The Leopards are just outside the top-10 in the preseason rankings for a class that has just 31 teams, and will likely have fewer next season. La Crosse carries eight seniors.
“It’s our senior class of 2020. It’s means a lot to me,” Thielenhaus said. “… It’s our last year at 11-man, it’s going to be tough toward the end of the year.”
Along with Morgan and Thielenhaus, senior wide receivers/cornerbacks Blake Herrman and Kaden Depperschmidt, senior running back/linebacker Keldon Day, offensive lineman/linebacker Michael Showalter and lineman Brock Brown return. Junior linemen C.J Patterson and Lucas Webster (6-foot-6) are expected to start as well. Webster said the camp has more resembled the teams when La Crosse was capturing double-digit victories.
“They’ve got a bad taste in their mouth from the last couple of years where it has not been quite up to snuff to what we expect of ourselves,” Webster said. “Some of that has been bad breaks, some of it has been kids just not buying 100 percent in, and I think we’ve got that buy in back, especially with our seniors.”
Showalter led La Crosse with 84 tackles, 13 for loss. Thielenhaus, whom Webster has been very pleased with his fall, delivered 53 tackles and nine TFLs last year.
“We kind of explored numbers going forward for the next five, six years, just projecting we would be lucky to get 21, 22 kids over that time period,” Webster said. “With the state of 1A football being kind of in flux, we felt like this was a good time for us to go down, a good team to transition with.”
Last year, Morgan completed 62 of 122 passes for 860 yards with a 14/12 TD/INT ratio. He had 96 carries for 409 yards and four scores. Stull, known for his speed, had three rushing scores and led the team with 123 carries for 532 yards.
“He’s off to the races,” Morgan said. “There is no one catching that kid. He will be the fastest kid in football this year.”
“He has really filled out compared to last year,” Webster added. “I think he is pushing 150, 155 pounds. He has not lost his speed.”
Morgan has watched La Crosse stars since he was a youngster and long remembers former Leopard greats Jacey Woods, Kip Keeley, Levi Morss, Sheldon Schmidt and quarterback Jack Garcia, now a first-year Leopard assistant and La Crosse’s quarterback coach. Garcia played at Ottawa after he threw for 4,664 yards with a 59/32 TD/INT ratio for La Crosse.
“He’s pretty much been my idol,” Morgan said. “I have grown up to be like him. I do want to be better than him, but he’s teaching me to be better than him, too, so that’s just what it’s all about here.”
Webster is in his first year as La Crosse principal. Normally, the school principal does not coach. Webster has served as head track coach and led the Leopards to 1A track titles in ’13-14. He replaced longtime La Crosse principal Kathy Keeley, who retired.
“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I would be principal right now,” Webster said. “But I have had some friends go into administration and the more they talked about it, it became something that I wanted to do. I started taking classes through Fort Hays, and really I didn’t expect it to happen this year. I was expecting a couple more years.”
Webster has liked coaching and being principal in the first few weeks of the school year.
“I am in a good spot balancing both,” Webster said. “The kids have been awesome on the football field, in the classroom, in the building. So I haven’t had to deal with a lot of stuff. So it may be a honeymoon period, but right now, it’s going well, and I really expect it to keep going well.”
When Webster first interviewed for the principal position, the board asked about the coaching. Webster thought about it, and said he “got a little emotional” and “a little teary-eyed.”
“It has been such a big part of my life, and honestly I don’t know,” Webster said. “I want to keep going, but I also want to do what it best for our kids both as football players and as students and what is best for our district.”
“After the season is over, myself, the board and the superintendent, we are going to sit down and we are going to talk about it, and see what’s best moving forward, and ultimately that has always been my main goal is what’s best for our kids,” he added.