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PREP FOOTBALL: Cavalier coach has higher expectations for upcoming season

Even Laxdal admits that was a lofty expectation.

“We’ve probably had 65, 70 percent participation in the past,” Laxdal said. “But we wanted to raise the bar. And we were awfully close to that 85 percent. We had at least 15-20 kids in the weight room five nights a week.

“The kids worked extremely hard. And it shows. These kids will come into fall camp bigger, stronger, faster than a year ago. It’s a highly competitive senior class. They put high expectations on themselves.”

The internal expectations are high; so are the external expectations. That’s only natural coming off the 2013 season the Tornadoes had.

Cavalier dominated the competition en route to the North Dakota 9-man state championship. The Tornadoes won the state title with only three seniors on their roster. On Wednesday, the drive for a repeat title officially begins when North Dakota high school teams open practices.

“We know every team wants to beat Cavalier,” senior all-state offensive lineman Jeff Stith said. “That gives us more to strive for. It pushes us to work harder.

“We know there are other teams who want what we’ve achieved.”

Dominant numbers

The numbers don’t lie in showing how Cavalier dominated the competition last season. They include:

  • The 11-0 record included shutting out all seven regular-season opponents;
  • No opponent came closer than 26 points of the Tornadoes. Cavalier finished the season averaging 57.6 points a game; it allowed an average of 4 points a game;
  • Only once all season did Cavalier trail in a game, that when Napoleon-G-S scored a touchdown and 2-point conversion for an 8-6 first-quarter lead in the state semifinals. Cavalier responded with eight unanswered touchdowns in a 62-8 win, then scored the first seven touchdowns in the state championship game, a 54-6 win against Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn.

Laxdal doesn’t expect any complacency.

“These kids push each other,” Laxdal said. “It’s a big senior class. It’s a very competitive class. These kids would never rest on what they’ve already done. What they did in the past I think they’ve already put in the past.”

Some changes

Cavalier’s bid to repeat starts on defense.

Seven starters return from that dominant unit — ends Stith and Cody Walton, tackle Bryton Kaercher and linebackers Brock Robbins, Dylon Stevenson, Trent Karel and Keaton Smith. Graduation took two all-staters, Justin Gibson and safety Ryan Chrest.

“We’ll be the same team, playing hard-nosed football and aggressive defense,” Stith said. “We take a lot of pride in our defense. We want to keep that goose egg on the scoreboard in games.

“And defense is a little more fun. You get to go out and hit people.”

While Laxdal doesn’t know if the Tornadoes can match last season’s stinginess, he does look for a strong defense again.

“Defense is our game,” Laxdal said. “We have a lot of fast, aggressive kids who are good tacklers and who fly to the ball. They’re pretty physical kids; that shows on defense. Teams might break down one guy, but it’s tough to move the ball when we have 3-4 guys always flying at you.”

The one big difference in the Tornadoes’ lineup will be the absence of Chrest at quarterback. He rushed for 1,514 yards last season and was a big-play threat. In the state title game, he ran for four touchdowns covering 34 or more yards en route to a Dakota Bowl-record 377 rushing yards.

Karel is heir apparent. He’s not inexperienced, having played a lot in all of the Tornadoes’ lopsided wins last season.

“I have big shoes to fill,” Karel said. “I know the team is depending on me. I take it as a challenge. It will be a little different for the team. Ryan liked to run. I’m more of a passing quarterback.”

Laxdal said the offense may have a bit of a different look. The Tornadoes may put more emphasis on a power running game. The building block is Robbins, an all-stater last season when he rushed for 1,033 yards who has verbally committed to play football at North Dakota State University.

Ryley Cleem also will return to the starting backfield, as will starting linemen Blake Kaercher, Bryton Kaercher, Deric Bohn and Stith.

“Our backs like that smash-mouth style,” Laxdal said. “We’ll try to be a little more balanced and throw a little more. Trent is a smart, heady player and an accurate thrower. He doesn’t make mistakes.”

Tough opener

Cavalier looked for a tougher schedule and found it in the 11-man ranks.

The Tornadoes open the season Aug. 26 against visiting Kindred, which was a playoff qualifer in Class AA 11-man last season. It will be an 11-man game.

“They were looking for a game,” Laxdal said. “We were looking for a game and we were looking for tough competition. It will be a challenge for us.”

These Tornadoes met the challenge on the field last season. Several of them played on the Cavalier team that finished fifth at last winter’s Class B state basketball tournament. They exceeded coaches’ expectations in the offseason strength program.

“We have a big senior class,” Karel said. “We want to win one more title. We had to work harder.”

Said Laxdal: “I don’t think you ever want a (favorite’s) target on your back. But I don’t think it bothers us. These kids know what it takes to do well.”