Clay Iverson has been here before.
He's back at square one, joining a new community and taking over a high school football program that is coming off a couple down years, something he has successfully done as the head coach at Pewaukee and Mukwonago. Iverson doesn’t anticipate the gig to be much different now that he’s taking over the Sauk Prairie program.
“The guys here have done a really good job of caring about each other… working hard… and once you start doing that, football’s not that difficult,” Iverson said Aug. 8, the third day of practice. “I feel really blessed to work with these young men and a great coaching staff that is really excited about what they’re doing and passionate about it. I think this is the third program we’ve taken over, and this is just as good as any group I’ve been around.”
Iverson hasn’t wasted any time getting to know his new group. He stays involved throughout practice, jumping in with a hands-on approach that had him as sweaty as many of the players on the opening day of practice Aug. 6.
“Coaches do it different ways, but we’re going to be very hands on,” said Iverson, who spent the 2018 season as an assistant at Carroll University. “We’re going to be in there with the kids. We’re going to ask them to work hard, so we’re going to work hard. We’re passionate about what we do. We love our kids, so we’re not going to ride around in golf carts and blow whistles at them. We’re going to get our hands dirty with them and we’re going to do it together.”
That’s a welcome approach in a Sauk Prairie program that is searching for continuity. Iverson is the Eagles' fifth coach since 2010, following Tom Horne, Joe Marx, Scott Mirkes and Scott Schutt. The Eagles have gone 19-62 during that time, including going 2-7 in each of the last two seasons under Schutt, who is back as an assistant after serving as the interim coach after Mirkes resigned the week of the 2017 season opener.
That constant change has left the Eagles used to adapting to new systems.
“There’s a lot of new stuff,” said Iverson, who has a 91-46 record in 13 years as a head coach. “New coaches… new verbiage… new culture… and then new offense, new defense and new special teams. So we’re throwing a lot at them, but they’re doing well and they’re working hard. That’s what we expect and they’re meeting those expectations.
“I don’t care if you’re in your first year or your 20th at a place, you’re always going to have fits and starts when you first begin. But their attitudes have been good. They just want to keep learning and getting better, and that’s all we’ll ever ask.”
Iverson and the coaching staff aren’t asking too much in the opening weeks. Building a culture has to start with the base, and the Eagles are spending August establishing the values that they want the program to be built on.
“I think you have to establish the how and the why,” Iverson said of the early processes of turning a program around. “Whatever offense and defense you’re going to run, that’s secondary.
“Our contact days were good, so I think we laid a base there of how we’re going to practice. Sometimes how you practice is more important than what you practice. Now we are putting in the what, so that takes some time. But we’ve shown glimmers of being where we’re going to end up. Obviously no one in the state is where they’re going to end up right now.”
Strong crop of seniors
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While there is a lot up in the air as the players and coaches feel each other out, the Eagles have a proven commodity entering Friday's season opener against Monroe. Senior Garrett Hertzfeldt is returning after earning All-Badger North Conference recognition at running back and linebacker last fall. Iverson has been impressed by what he’s seen from his senior leader thus far.
“He’s everything that we thought he’d be,” Iverson said of Hertzfeldt. “I watched a lot of film on him last year, but the one thing you can’t see is leadership when you’re just watching film. He’s doing a great job leading, helping out younger guys. All this offense and defense is brand new to him, so he’s learning but also teaching. That’s difficult to do for anybody, much less a young man who hasn’t even started his senior year of high school. He’s a special young man, and there’s a couple other seniors who are doing the same thing."
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Hertzfeldt isn’t the only Eagle with experience, as a small senior last season allowed a number of underclassmen to receive playing time.
Hertzfeldt is Sauk Prairie’s lone returning all-conference honoree on the offensive side of the ball, while he is just one of five on a defense that may be ahead of the offense at the start of the season. Lineman Colby Elsing and linebackers Dayton Goette, Brooks Leister and Parker Breunig all earned all-conference recognition last year. Marcus Hankins, Colton Oas, Kenneth Vasquez and Lance Bauernhuber also have experience up front, while Ben German and Jay Liedtke are back in the secondary. The group of rising seniors led a Sauk Prairie defense that gave up 30.0 points per game in 2018, down from 36.1 per game in 2017. Iverson is going to let those veterans go out and be aggressive.
“We’ll be in odd fronts, even fronts, but the big thing about any defense you play is we’d like to be known as an aggressive team that tackles well and runs to the ball,” Iverson said. “If we do that, then I don’t know if it matters as long as we’re sound. We’ll be sound on defense, we’ll play different fronts, but hopefully when people come watch us play they’ll say, ‘Sauk Prairie plays hard.’"
There's plenty of room to grow on offense after the Eagles scored just 10.9 points per game in 2018, scoring more than half of their 98 total points in a 50-36 home win over Portage. Sauk Prairie was held to single digits six times in nine games.
“We’ll be multiple,” Iverson said of how he expects to play offensively. “You could hand the ball off every time, and that’d be awesome, but we’ll be multiple — running and throwing. You can be multiple and run the ball a lot, so we’ll do that a lot of different ways. And we’ll throw the ball a lot of different ways. But we won’t try to reinvent the game of football, we just want to do a few things well."
There will be a new quarterback for the third straight season after the graduation of Adam Juran last year. Breunig is among the individuals taking reps under center, a competition that wasn't settled in the first week of camp.
Building a competitive base
Iverson hopes the competition and excitement within the program carries through the season.
“Any time something’s new, it’s exciting,” Iverson said. “When you start to get into day three and four (of practice), now you find out, is that true passion? Or is it pretend?. I think what we’ve seen so far is that it’s true passion. I think they’re excited, but that’s got nothing to do with me. They just want to do well."
Improvement is the goal in 2019, whether it shows on the scoreboard in year one or not. Iverson has reached the WIAA playoffs 10 times, including reaching the quarterfinals four times and semifinals once, but he's focused on improving from week-to-week.
“At the end of the year, if our young men became better young men, and we taught them life lessons, and then on the field we played hard and we represented the community, then that’s a successful year,” Iverson said. “I’m an optimistic guy when it comes to win-loss records, but that’s secondary."