FULTON – By this time, Patrick Lower is used to the ups and downs of a high school football program.
Lower is entering his 12th season at the helm of Steamer football. He has seen classes graduate and leave the program almost entirely new, along with having successful seasons and playoff runs. This year will be the first of those, with a lot of new faces taking the lead on the field.
"We graduated a lot of seniors from last year's team... We have one kid coming back who played both sides of the ball and didn't come off the ball and that's Eli Pannell," Lower said. "Other than that we are pretty much new in every other area. Even some of the seniors didn't see a ton of time last year. We're kind of starting from scratch in a way."
The Steamers ended their 2017 campaign in the second round of the playoffs, losing to Forreston and finishing with a 7-4 record.
A lot of this was thanks to a strong running game from a group of seniors. Runnings backs Austin Schroeder and Austin Rash put up huge rushing yards last year, as did quarterback Bryce Grant.
With the legs gone, he's looking to some underclassman. Eli Pannell is one of his key returners and is going to put up big numbers. He's also going to lead some underclassman who may not have the varsity experience that he does.
“We have two sophomores and a junior who are going to be our main runners," Lower said. Those three are Ethan Rash, Kyler Pessman and Travis Hill. "They’re all very capable backs just very inexperienced at the varsity level. Those three young guys are going to be our work horses.”
For Pannell, it's his chance to step up as a senior leader and use everything he's learned as a Steamer. He will focus on his own running game of course, but also lead his teammates by example.
“I like to stay calm, cool and collected," Pannell said. "You have to lead by example and show the underclassman what to do to make them better and that will make the team better.
“We’re just going to take it slow and work hard to make the younger guys better. We have to have them ready to face juniors and seniors.”
Fulton is notorious for running the ball. They are returning quarterback Max Lemke, who saw some time last year and even threw the game winning pass against Morrison, but Lower knows that the ground game will still be where they flourish.
“I think we’re going to have to make speed our thing," Lower said. "Our main goal on offense is to put ourselves in position depending on what that defense does. We see where we can attack teams and where we’re better off.
"We’re not going to be to just blow people off the ball and get yards in a cloud dust. We have to be a little more creative than that and that’s what we’re going to do. That’s kind of fun for us as coaches.”
They're also not going to win on size. Fulton has never had a plethora of bigger athletes, and they lost quite a bit of defensive size in the offseason. Seniors Ethan Fish, Brody Mason, Seth Sikkema, Erik North and a number of others all made big contributions.
That's where Lower is looking at more inexperience.
"Our kids are working hard and they know that we graduated a lot," Lower said. "They know that there’s a lot on their shoulders but you know what, we’re just getting better each and every day. On our practice plan, it says that.”
Another leader he will be looking to will be Larsen Barnett. He reiterates both Pannell and Lower when he says the underclassman are working.
“I think we have to outwork our opponents and go into practice every day wanting to get better. If we do that. We’ll be good," Barnett said. “Our sophomore lineman we just pulled up, they have a lot of size. They’ve been working really hard and they’re going to be very good.
“I think we want to show them [underclassman] that we work really hard. Hopefully, next year and years after that they’ll keep working hard.”
Like mentioned, in his 12th season at the head of the program, Lower is used to these ups and downs in athletes. He enjoys the adversity and sees it as a chance for his coaching staff to improve as well.
"It's a real commitment to getting better each and every day and I know it's a real coaching cliche but but it's also kind of refreshing," Lower said. "As coaches, we kind of got used to the last couple of years not having to coach every aspect of the game like we are now. Our kids understand they're young and we understand they're young so really paying attention to details is the real big difference between this year and other years."
He's not worried either. He knows that you can compare last season's stats all you want, but nothing matters once the lights come on on Fridays. From Week 1 to the playoffs, anything can happen.
“We have to focus on ourselves," Lower said. "This time of year is exciting. Every night you watch the news or read the newspapers and see the teams getting previewed. I tell our players every day I know who is getting previewed but I don’t care. All we have to do is worry about what we’re doing. As long as we take care of ourselves and what we need to then we’ll be ok.”
The Steamers kick off the 2018 season at home Friday against St. Bede.