By Blake Froling
Last season: 2-7, 1-5 in Mid Pen
Only six players in the Mid Pen Conference who earned all-conference honors last season are returning this year. Westwood has two of them.
While seemingly every team in the conference suffered heavy attrition from graduation, Westwood was barely affected. The Patriots started six sophomores, four juniors and only one senior for the most part last season, according to head coach Scott Syrjala. The playing time for the underclassmen was invaluable, even though they certainly took their lumps -- a 35-0 loss to Chetek-Weyerhaeuser to open the season, a 30-0 drubbing from Ishpeming, a 34-0 loss to Gwinn and a 28-0 loss to Negaunee to end the season, just to name a few.
Syrjala said he can see the experience is already showing in the preseason.
“I can tell just through our camp here a little bit our kids are moving faster, they're knowing things, they’re a little bit smarter, so yeah it has helped,” said Syrjala after a joint practice with Bark River-Harris in July.
Syrjala also noticed a greater number of players working out in the offseason than in years past, coming in to lift weights as a team year-round. Instead of getting discouraged by a losing season, they dedicated themselves to getting better in the winter and summer months.
“They see how strong they have to be and how fast they have to be,” said Syrjala, “and if it wasn't a good group of kids, they wouldn't have responded in the offseason the way they have.”
Listen to Scott Syrjala's full interview here
One of the players leading the charge in the offseason was Nathan Beckman, who started at quarterback as a sophomore and also earned all-conference honorable mention at defensive back. Being such a young starter last season, he struggled at times, but Syrjala has been impressed with his dedication in the offseason.
“This is a kid that would go in for basketball practice and then lift afterwards,” said Syrjala. “He would ask to come in on Saturdays and Sundays and I’d have to tell him, ‘Becks you have to take a break, you have to rest your body a bit.’”
Beckman completed 45 percent of his passes and threw for 610 yards, ranking third in the conference. He also tossed eight touchdowns and only three interceptions. Syrjala said Beckman isn’t making some of the simple mistakes he did as a sophomore and is ready to take the next step.
“The game is starting to slow down for him, and he’s starting to make his reads and go through his progression,” said Syrjala. “His footwork is getting better, he worked on his footwork in the offseason, and I expect big things out of him this year.”
Westwood also returns three of its top four receivers from last season, which should boost an offense that was stagnant at times. Junior Jacob Adriano caught 11 passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns. Speedy senior Ethan Burke averaged an incredible 24.9 yards per reception and found the end zone three times.
The defense is just as young as the offense as well. Burke, Beckman and Adriano had an interception each, and junior defensive end Sam Gilles earned all-conference honorable mention last season. But their inexperience showed as they allowed fewer than 28 points in a game only twice, their two wins against L’Anse and Manistique.
In a year when the Mid Pen Conference might be perceived as being “down” due to the exodus of talented seniors from last season, it could turn into the perfect landscape for the young but more seasoned Patriots to shoot up the standings. Syrjala doesn't have any specific expectations for his team -- he'd prefer to focus on the little things.
"It would be foolish to say 'well, we can only win six games this year.' You're almost setting yourself up there," said Syrjala. "Let's be a solid defensive team, know our blocks, know our assignments, make sure we're in position to make plays. You do those things, we start little, we keep continuing to build on it, then hopefully the wins will come. And once those wins start coming and if you worry about the little things and break the game down for the kids, then maybe bigger things will be on the horizon."