Portage Warriors - Badger North
Coach: Bob Hepp (1st Season); 20th season overall, 102-68 career record (19-23 at East Troy '87-'90 in 4 seasons; 41-16 at Viroqua '90-'93 and '97-'98 in 6 seasons; 42-29 at Campbellsport '01-'04 and '10-'14 in 9 seasons); 8-11 career in postseason
2016 Result: 1-8 (0-6), 7th in the Badger North
Three-Year Record: 2-25
2016 All-Conference Honors: 1 First-Team, 1 Second-Team, 2 Honorable Mention (4 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 1 First-Team, 2 Second-Team, 13 Honorable Mention (16 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (1): WR/DB Nolan Paul (First Team-WR) (Second Team-DB) (WSN Class of 2018 Players to Watch - WR), Sr.
Other Players To Watch: QB/DB Erik Isakson, Sr.; RB/DB Grant Garrigan, Sr.; FB/LB Justin Sankey, Sr.; RB/LB Dylan Golke, Sr.; WR/DL Gabe D'Asto, Sr.; WR Gio D'Asto, Sr.; RB/LB/K Dale Sheppard, Junior, So.; QB/K Brett Walker, So.
New Portage Head Coach Bob Hepp enters his 20th season as a head coach in a career of coaching that spans four decades, now at the helm of his fourth high school program in Wisconsin.
Hepp, a native of Randolph who previously turned East Troy, Viroqua, and Campbellsport into playoff teams, shrugged off the label of being a coach with a knack for turning around programs.
"The Badger is the best D-2, D-3 conference in the state. It's a tough league. You have to fight every Friday night. There's so many great coaches and players. There's no shortcuts or gimme games in the Badger." - Portage Head Coach Bob Hepp
"So much of the success in every program I've been a part of has been the numbers," said Hepp. "That's the first thing you have to work on, is getting the participation level up."
Any tricks or tips on how to do it?
"There's no scheme or system that can overcome low numbers," answered Hepp. "You've got to get everyone in the program to buy in and participate," he said, citing his previous coaching stops.
Coach Hepp followed up by saying that he's been impressed at how quickly the returning players and coaches have gotten to work on the task. "This is a hard-working group, you can tell," said Hepp.
Coach Hepp also says that he will need great coaches to rebuild a program that has made the playoffs just twice in this millennium, and that comes at all levels, not only the high school level.
"I wouldn't say that I'm necessarily good at turning programs around," said Hepp. "I've been fortunate to work with some great coaches and players who really get after it."
Nolan Paul will be the centerpiece of Coach Hepp's first Warriors team. Paul earned the first first-team all-conference honor for the Warriors in at least the past three seasons, and added a second-team nod as a defensive back as well this past season. Paul was honorable mention at both positions in 2015, as a sophomore.
A trio of seniors will head up the backfield offensively. Erik Isakson will move from wide receiver to behind center for 2017. Isakson caught 34 passes in 2016 and was second on the team in receiving yardage behind Paul. Running the ball, Justin Sankey is back as fullback, where he rumbled for three touchdowns and was second on the team in rushing as a junior. Grant Garrigan will move to the backfield from wide receiver, where he was third on the team in receptions and yardage and second on the team in receiving touchdowns. Senior Dylan Golke was third on the team in rushing a season ago and could see some time in the backfield again as well
Along with Nolan Paul, seniors Gabe and Gio D'Asto are back as a pass-catching options. However, with the moves by Isakson and Garrigan to the backfield, there may be some opportunities for other players to step in.
While the skill positions are well-stocked with experienced seniors, the offensive line will need to "be completely remade," said Coach Hepp.
"We're still deciding on what to do here," said Hepp, hesitating for a moment. "We've got work to do on the lines. We're still working through who will be at those positions."
Portage graduated five seniors who played along the lines. This year's senior class returns five linemen as well, but there are a number of others who could push for playing time or a starting role.
Likewise, the defensive line will consist of many of the same question marks as the bulk of the linemen graduated. Gabe D'Asto had five tackles for a loss last season to lead the Warriors.
However, the team has leadership in the second wave at linebacker with Justin Sankey, second on the team in tackles a year ago only to Nolan Paul, who will lead an experienced and talented secondary in 2017. Dale Sheppard Jr. is back at the linebacker spot as well as Dylan Golke. In the secondary, Grant Garrigan and Erik Isakson help form a solid back-end trio with Paul.
All told, Portage returns its four leading tacklers (Paul, Sankey, Garrigan, and Isakson) and seven of its top eight from a year ago (including Sheppard Jr., D'Asto, and Gohlke). The Warriors will need to find some pieces for the front line, but all told are in good shape coming into 2017 defensively.
In the special teams department, Nolan Paul averaged 37.2 yards per punt last season, while at kicker, sophomores Brett Walker and Dale Sheppard Jr. return to handle the kicking duties. Sheppard Jr. was a perfect 5-5 on extra points and attempted the only field goal for Portage last season.
On the schedule, Portage will have to navigate through a difficult schedule, as one would expect when competing in the Badger Conference. First up are the Badger crossover games. The Warriors meet Stoughton at home to kick off the season. Stoughton features a solid rushing attack and experienced, talented offensive and defensive lines, which will immediately test the rebuilt Portage lines.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Portage will get a Week 2 road date at defending Division 2 runner-up Monona Grove. While the Silver Eagles will similarly be working with completely rebuilt lines, Monona Grove returns a pair of outstanding offensive talents in Alec Ogden and Jackson Thomsen.
Badger North play begins with a pair of home games against two schools that Portage saw to end the 2016 campaign, losing by five to Sauk Prairie (their Week 3 opponent) and eight to Baraboo (Week 4).
A difficult stretch to end the season looms for Portage, as they will play four of their final five contests on the road. First up, it's Badger North favorite Waunakee on the road on September 15. Portage turns around the next week to take on Badger Conference newcomer Beaver Dam, also a road trip.
The Warriors' final home game is on September 29, in Week 7, when they face another top Badger North squad in Mount Horeb/Barneveld. Two road games loom to close out the season, against Reedsburg (only a six-point loss for Portage a season ago) and DeForest.
"The Badger is the best D-2, D-3 conference in the state," said Coach Hepp. "It's a tough league. You have to fight every Friday night. There's so many great coaches and players. There's no shortcuts or gimme games in the Badger."
Listen for a feature on Portage football during our first Prep Report broadcast on August 16 on The Big 1070.
--Jimmie Kaska @jimmekaska