By Jason Arndt
The Wilmot Union High School football team enters season play Sept. 25 with visiting Union Grove as defending Southern Lakes Conference co-champions.
But defending a championship, especially this year amid a COVID-19 pandemic, brings a different set of challenges and a series of unknowns.
Under a typical season, which begins in mid-August, Southern Lakes Conference schools decided to play a conference-only schedule this fall and have a seven-game slate instead of nine.
Wilmot, like other conference opponents, also don’t have the luxury of playing two non-conference contests to start the season to allow further assessment of players before opening SLC play.
Head coach Keiya Square, on Sept. 18 at Frank Bucci Field in Wilmot, acknowledged the season will look different compared to previous years and said preparing for multiple scenarios is critical.
“You just come out here and try to have things as normal as they can,” said Square. “You just never know with kids being sick, or whatever might happen, so you just to prepare and ensure everyone has a backup and does their job.”
The Panthers have used five or six different lineup rotations during practices allowing many returners and newcomers time at multiple positions.
Square said he and members of his coaching staff are working with newcomers who are expected to step up this season.
“We have a decent amount of kids back, we are going to have some young kids who are going to step up and play,” he said. “We are going to try and play as many kids as we can just so we have as many guys ready as we can.”
Conference title defense
The Panthers, meanwhile, are coming off of a 2019 campaign, where they finished 9-2 overall and 6-1 in league play to claim a share of the SLC championship with Waterford.
While Waterford presented a challenge last year, according to Square, he said the team should not take teams such as Burlington and Lake Geneva Badger lightly.
“The usual suspects are always going to be there,” he said. “We expect to be competing for a conference championship.”
The conference title defense, however, hinges on the Panthers replacing players lost to graduation, including dual-threat Zack Watson at quarterback, two-way player Austin Videlka as well as key defensive players.
Key defensive losses include first team All-Conference lineman Connor Luoma, who recorded a team-leading six sacks, second team pick and total tackles leader Logan Pye along with linebacker Cal Jenkins.
Videlka, second in team rushing, earned first team All-Conference as a linebacker.
But the Panthers still return senior Caden Mulhollon, first team All-SLC defensive back, first team offensive utility player Leo Falletti, second team defensive lineman Ethan Ivan and first team punter Blake Weaver.
Mulhollon, who contributed on offense last year, finished second on the team in total tackles with 144 and led in interceptions at three as a junior.
Square also expects to see defensive back Kaleb Gendron and linebacker Hunter Ornberg, both returning seniors, play a larger role on the team in 2020.
Offensively, without leading passer Watson, Square plans to look at sophomores Anthony Hall and Cooper Zimmerman under center.
Leo Falletti, according to Square, will likely be the team’s feature rusher in the backfield with brother Marco Falletti receiving additional repetitions.
Leo Falletti, as a junior, finished with 380 yards on 48 carries along with two touchdowns. He also had 19 catches for 441 yards with six touchdowns.
“Leo Falletti was our main running back last year, we are going to lean on him heavily,” Square said. “His brother Marco, a sophomore, is another kid who is going to step in there and run the ball.”
Receiving targets include returners Corey Patrick (junior), Korik Klein (senior), Asher Schroeder (sophomore) and Cade Frisby (freshman).
The Panthers, according to Square, will have many receiving options for their sophomore signal callers.
“We have a lot of different options, I don’t know if we have a true No. 1,” said Square.