Although they went into this season with a lot of question marks with the loss of some key players and perhaps most notably, a veteran coaching staff, the Swanton Bulldogs have made it back to the football playoffs for a third straight season.
A lot of that credit should go to first-year coach Randy Kerns for maintaining that winner’s mentality.
“It’s been an improbable year, and one heck of a ride,” said coach Kerns. “This feels great for me and for our kids. We lost a lot of amazing players from 2016, and not to mention a great coach in Mike Vicars. Anytime that happens, a lot of people expect there to be a layoff. I mean, we had very few starters returning, and we were picked to finish sixth preseason in this league (the NWOAL), and we end up second and in the playoffs at 7-3. I know this season has meant a lot to our kids and coaches, especially with what we felt like were a lot of people counting us out. What our kids have done this year has simply been amazing!”
Their reward for such a great season was the eighth seed in Division V, Region 18, where they will travel a somewhat short distance to Eastwood Friday at 7:30 p.m.
“First of all, Eastwood is an unbelievably good team,” noted Kerns. “They’re first in the state in Division V right now for a reason. The key will absolutely be in the trenches, and inside the box. They’re very simple offensively and defensively, but boy do they execute and punish people. They line up and come right at you with physicality. We have to match their toughness, effort, and execution.”
To have success, the Dogs will have to shut down the Eagle rushing attack, led by running back Jaden Rayford. The sophomore has accumulated 1,429 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Eastwood’s second leading rusher is Ian Downard, who has racked up 728 yards and 10 TDs on the season.
The Eagles are not much of a passing team, as quarterback Jake Pickerel has just 388 yards and six TDs. Furthermore, none of their receivers have more than one touchdown on the year.
So the focus for the Bulldog defense will be simple, win the battle upfront.
“We have to be prepared for and play with great physicality,” said Kerns on the keys to the game. “We have to continue to take care of the football. We can’t give this team any turnovers, and we must play a clean game from a penalty standpoint. And I’m also looking for our kids to just embrace this, and have fun out there. When we’ve had fun and just gotten after it, that’s when we’ve been able to play our best football. I’m eager to see our kids out there Friday night, and I think we will rise up to this challenge.”
The Swanton offense will lean on its ground game as well.
Junior running back Michael Lawniczak leads the way for the Dogs this season, notching 873 yards, 14 total TDs and a two-point conversion. Senior running back Gage Pachlhofer is next with 569 yards and 10 TDs.
For the Dogs to emerge victorious Friday, those two will have to make an impact.
Reach Max Householder at 419-335-2010