Warren-A-O football has had turnaround season
WARREN, Minn. -- The starting lineup includes five sophomores and six juniors to go along with only four seniors. That didn’t make this a rebuilding season for the Warren-Alvarado-Oslo high school football team.
The rebuild was a year ago, when the Ponies struggled to a 1-8 record. Seven of the losses were by 20 or more points.
“Last year we were even younger,’’ Ponies coach Tony Gullikson said. “We only had three seniors on that team; only two started. We played a lot of freshmen and sophomores.’’
The still-young Ponies, with only seven seniors on their roster, have reversed their fortunes. Warren-Alvarado-Oslo is 7-3, the No. 2 seed in the Section 8 9-man playoffs and plays North Central in the section championship game at 3 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31, in the Fargodome.
“It is a bit of a surprise,’’ senior Brandon Miller said. “We felt we could be good. But coming off a one-win season to seven wins, it’s pretty amazing.’’
Amazing? Perhaps. But a berth in the section championship was one of the goals Gullikson set at the beginning of the season.
“I think we’ve exceeded our expectations,’’ Gullikson said. “One of our first goals was to get to .500. But we also felt getting to the Fargodome was realistic.
“But the looks on the kids’ faces when we presented our team goals at the start of the season, you could see there were some doubts.’’
It didn’t help that Jared Johnson, an all-conference pick last year, had his season end before it started when he suffered a knee injury a few days before the opening practice in August.
“At first we were really bummed out when Jared was hurt,’’ Miller said. “He was a big part of our team. But we knew we had to stick together, that our season wasn’t over. We still had high hopes.’’
The Ponies’ game plan is basic -- run the football and play strong defense. Warren-A-O has thrown only 46 passes all season.
Johnson’s loss was offset by the return of Miller, who has rushed for 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns after missing last season due to a knee injury. “He has the strength to break tackles and the speed to break away when he gets in the open,’’ Gullikson said.
The Ponies opened with three straight wins, followed with three straight losses and have won their last four. During the current winning streak, W-A-O has reached the 20-point mark only once. But it hasn’t allowed more than eight points in any of the wins.
Miller leads the team from his linebacker spot with 126 tackles, 14 tackles for lost yardage and 4 interceptions. But, Gullikson said, the defense is anchored by the line of Garrett Mehrkens, Nevin Ness, Noah Rodriguez, Matthew Weiland and Kirby Kilen. The five have combined for 28 tackles for losses and 12 sacks.
“The defense flies around,’’ Gullikson said. “We get a lot of people to the ball. That’s had a lot to do with our success.’’
So has a group of athletes who have put in the time to improve and turn around the program’s fortunes.
“Everybody is a year older, a year stronger,’’ Miller said. “We worked hard in the offseason. We were in the weight room more than in the past. It’s really paid off. We’re a lot stronger, more physical team.’’