Tuesday marked the official start of a new football season for players and coaches across the state of Wisconsin as high school teams met for the first practices of the fall season.
The beginning of a new campaign in Portage came with the opening of a temporary new establishment, as Haak Hotel opened under new Warriors coach Shane Haak. Members of the team will sleep at Haak Hotel — the gym at John Muir Elementary School — following the first two days of practices as they get ready for the upcoming season.
Haak takes over for Bob Hepp, who resigned at the end of last season, his second in charge. The Warriors’ former defensive coordinator was excited to get back on the field full time.
“It’s always great (to start), and we’ve been fortunate to have summer stuff going on,” Haak said. “We’ve made some strides in there, but in the summer sometimes you see them for a couple days and then you don’t see them for a couple days. It’s off and on, and now we get to see them consistently and can really see the strikes they start to take when you see them every day.”
Prior to being hired as head coach, Haak was an assistant coach under Hepp and predecessor Sean Stout, for a total of four years on the staff. While he was able to absorb a lot of knowledge from both head coaches, Haak said the biggest positive heading into this season is the fact he has been with the Warriors’ class of 18 seniors.
“I’ve been able to build a rapport with them and I think that’s important,” he said. “That’s been the biggest benefit of being an assistant the last few years. Being around the guys, I’m not coming into this blind and it’s one of the reasons why we’re coaching, because we really enjoy being around these kids. We really have some great kids and it’s exciting to see them grow.”
Haak has been most impressed with the seniors’ leadership off the field and in the weight room during the summer. The group, which includes returning All-Badger North Conference honorable mention picks Dale Sheppard Jr. and Matthew Miles, and the rest of the other players spent a considerable amount of time pumping iron, while also cultivating a strong sense of camaraderie and learning the Warriors’ playbook.
That preseason preparation was on display Tuesday night and will help the Warriors transition on both offense and defense. Haak said Portage will continue to use the triple-option offensive while also incorporating a more pro-style set, while using multiple schemes on defense.
“I give the kids a lot of credit because it’s not just them working during the contact days. They put a lot of work in on their own, and that’s been one of the biggest things I’ve been pleased with so far,” Haak said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to change our offense and defense as of right now.”
The key for Haak and the rest of the Warriors staff — which also includes his father, Tim, Portage’s athletic director an an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer — is putting the pieces together. Shane Haak said they must “adapt our offense and defense around the strengths we have.”
One of those strengths playing to the Warriors’ favor is experience, as a number of returning players saw significant action last season.
“We have kids that are able to evaluate their mistakes, implement something, change it and be better then,” Haak said. “I think that’s where the experience can be important.”
Portage will also have plenty of motivation as it aims to get back into the playoffs after a winless 2018 season. The Warriors lost all but one game by more than 15 points as they missed the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season.
Even with that lengthy streak looming over the program, Haak said the team remains focused on getting better, knowing the results will take care of themselves.
“We can’t be focused on the rest of the conference. We have to focus on us and try to get the most out of us, and we believe if we do that, good things will happen,” he said.
Portage will look to implement that on Aug. 16 when it hosts Tomah for a scrimmage at Portage High School ahead of its season opener against Fort Atkinson on Aug. 23 at Bob Mael Field in Portage.