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Mooseheart's football team conducted its first preseason drills in preparation for the 2012 season on Wednesday. The Ramblers open their season Aug. 25 at Alden-Hebron.
Mooseheart football coach demonstrates tackling techniques with Peter Mator as his partner. Urwiler leads the Ramblers into a football season as head coach for the 13th time this fall.
Mooseheart defensive coordinator Charlie Palochko (left) helps senior U-Jay Smith prepare for a drill during the Ramblers first preseason practice.
A group of Mooseheart juniors race up a hill at Camp Ross, a campground owned by the Moose fraternity that is located 75 miles west of the Mooseheart campus. Camp Ross has become the traditional site of the first days of the team's preseason practices.
MT. MORRIS, IL –August 7, 2013 - When they step onto the field for their season opener, Mooseheart's football team will be sporting new uniforms. New jerseys, pants and helmets aren't the only much-changed things in the Ramblers locker room.
Certainly all high school football rosters change from one year to the next as seniors graduate and underclass players advance to the varsity squad. But even on that scale, Mooseheart is a tremendously changed squad. And given that the Ramblers are a Class 1A school and annually one of the smallest high schools to play football in Illinois, tremendous roster turnover means lots of players making varsity debuts.
“We've lost, on our varsity roster, 16 from last year,” Mooseheart coach Gary Urwiler said. “We usually travel with 24 or 25. The guys have a great attitude and are really upbeat and the first day, they're working hard.”
The Ramblers opened practice on Wednesday, the first day allowed by the IHSA, in preparation for the 2012 season opener, which takes place Aug. 25 at Alden-Hebron. Urwiler said his team will need every one of its allowed practices in order to prepare for that game against the Giants.
“We're not ready yet,” Urwiler said. “The excitement will build as we get ready for the first game. But we're not ready yet.”
As has become tradition, the Ramblers' opening week practices take place at Camp Ross, a 100-acre campground just southwest of Mt. Morris, 75 miles from the Mooseheart campus. The seclusion has always helped the team bond as a unit in the early days of preseason workouts. This year, with the multitude of roster changes, that process is more important than usual.
“We're very fortunate to be able to come up here and to use this space,” Urwiler said. “It's really to our advantage and to our benefit to be able to live together for the three days as we do. It's a lot of football and a lot of work, but I believe we leave here with a better sense of what we want to do and who we are.”
Last season was special for Mooseheart. The Ramblers finished an undefeated regular season for the first time since 1996 and claimed their first Northeastern Athletic Conference title when they defeated North Shore Country Day in the final regular season contest.
Mooseheart proceeded to win its second IHSA playoff game in school history before falling in the second round of the playoffs. Urwiler's team finished the season 10-1. Urwiler leads the Mooseheart program into his 13th season as head coach. In two stints as head coach – 1996-2001 and 2005-11 – Urwiler's teams have finished 61-53 and advanced to the playoffs six times.
“We're going to have stay focused knowng that last year doesn't mean anything now,” Urwiler said. “We had a great year and a year that we'll never forget. But a lot of teams are going to remember that we were very competitive last year and they are going to be ready for us, maybe more so than last year.”
While the 2011 team's accomplishments now exist only in the record book, a number of players from that team return, and they would like to maintain the standard of excellence set by that squad.
“We know that last year raised a lot of expectations for a lot of people outside our football team,” Mooseheart senior quarterback Jon Hart said. “We have to remember that we have to be our own team now and find our own way now – hopefully back to the playoffs.”
The roster area which witnesses the greatest change is up front, the offensive and defensive lines. Between graduation and players who have left Mooseheart since the end of the 2011 campaign, only one lineman returns, senior Chris Gustafson. With many Ramblers playing on both lines, when a player leaves, it opens two roster spots.
“It's something that we are concerned about,” Urwiler said. “We've got some guys who can do it. It's just a matter of them learning the system and the scheme and being able to step in and perform. We'll see who is ready to step up and perform.”
Gustafson finished the season on crutches after suffering a knee injury in the North Shore Country Day contest. He had offseason kneee sugery but said his leg feels fine as he begins preparation for his senior season.
“I'm thrilled,” Gustafson said. “All my teammates have been grateful that I'm back. They've been pushing me, making sure that I'm ready and they've been caring for me, making sure that my leg doesn't get injured out here. Without my teammates, I wouldn't be here.”
Mooseheart has strength in its offensive skill position players, especially with quarterback Hart and senior running backs Oumaru Abdulahi and Sahr Mahoney. Abdulahi had offseason shoulder surgery but was healthy to finish second in the Class 1A high jump competition in May.
“I still feel comfortable that we have threats,” Urwiler said. “It's a blessing to have (Hart and Abdulahi) back.”
Hart's favorite receiving targets – Noel Yarngo and Daniel Tucker – graduated in May. But junior J.J. Odunsi returns.
“A lot of people don't know about (Odunsi), but he's a pretty talented young man,” Urwiler said. “This is his time to step up and I believe in his abilities. He can play like some of those guys last year.”
Hart himself is more than ready to start the campaign, his third as the varsity starter for the Ramblers.
“It's exciting to be back for senior year,” Hart said. “I've been looking forward to this moment, for the opportunity to be one of the guys people look up to and to be a go-to guy for the team. We'll have a lot of fun this year.”
2012 Mooseheart football schedule
Aug. 25, at Alden-Hebron, 1 p.m.
Sept. 1, at Luther North, 1 p.m.
Sept. 8, home vs. Rockford Christian Life, 1 p.m.
Sept. 14 home vs. Christian Liberty, 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 at Ottawa Marquette, 7 p.m.
Sept. 29 home vs. Kirkland Hiawatha, 1 p.m. (Homecoming)
Oct. 4, at CSIS Longwood, 7 p.m. (Played at St. Rita)
Oct. 12 at Chicago Hope, 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 home vs. North Shore Country Day, 7 p.m.