With almost twice as many returning letterwinners as departures from last year, Stoughton has its sights set on lofty goals this fall.
The Vikings only made the playoffs twice before 2016, but are now seeking their fourth straight postseason appearance under fifth-year coach Dan Prahl.
“A lot of us have been playing together since youth football. It’s been exciting to have us come up and do well,” junior linebacker Brooks Empey said. “This is the year we’ve been looking forward to for awhile with the current seniors and juniors.”
Stoughton won five straight games to begin last season, but faded late with three straight losses. The Vikings routed Fort Atkinson in Week 9 to qualify for the Division 2 playoffs, but were quickly ousted by Badger South champion Monona Grove.
The Silver Eagles outscored Stoughton 79-14 in two meetings last year, but an experienced group of Vikings are eager to claim a conference title this season.
Stoughton returns 26 letterwinners, including eight starters on offense and six on defense.
Prahl and his coaching staff know the lofty expectations for their team, and have been preparing their players with tough, up-tempo practices.
“I think teams are going to try to get in some of our players’ heads,” Prahl said. “We’re trying to hammer composure through and break them down in practice, soN the games are easier. We’re constantly talking about mental toughness.”
Senior quarterback Adam Hobson returns to lead the Vikings’ spread offense. Hobson showed off his dual threat capabilities last season by throwing for 1,239 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions and finishing second on the team in carries (113), rushing yards (674) and rushing touchdowns (5).
He was named honorable mention all-conference last season in his first year as the starter, but is determined to improve on his completion rate, as he completed 48.9% (108-for-221) of his passes.
“Adam is one of the hardest-working kids I’ve coached,” Prahl said. “He has a good arm and continues to get better with his timing on throws.”
“I tweaked a couple things, but for the most part, I’m sticking to the basics,” Hobson added. “With a lot of guys returning, we’re incorporating a lot of things we’re excited about.”
One of Hobson’s top targets figures to be senior wide receiver and return man Nathan Hutcherson. He had a team-high 40 catches and six receiving touchdowns, and racked up 1,093 all-purpose yards and eight total touchdowns on his way to second-team all-conference honors last season.
Senior running back Quinn Arnott is stepping into the featured back role to replace Dwight Walker. Arnott rushed for 245 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries last season.
Stoughton lost its three top tacklers, but brings back plenty of experience to its 4-3 defense.
Curtis Jaskulke is the only returning all-conference defender. He had 32 tackles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown, and will be joined again at defensive end by sophomore Barrett Nelson. Jasulke and Nelson started all 10 games last season as a sophomore and freshman, respectively.
Stoughton will have to break in an all-new linebacking corps.
Empey made 61 tackles last year as a safety, but will be moving back to his old position. He’ll be joined at the position by classmate Rudy Detweiler.
The Vikings have three returners in the defensive backfield — Jack Sanford, Teddy Baldukas and Owen Chase — and Prahl is expecting big things from new safety Jonah O’Connor.
Stoughton starts the season with its two Badger Conference crossovers. The Vikings travel to Beaver Dam in Week 1, then host defending Badger North champ Waunakee.
Prahl, a 2007 Oregon alum, will face off against his alma mater at Panther Field in Week 3.
“I think our first three games will be a great indicator of what kind of team we’ll be,” Prahl said. “We’ll see how we match up in the state. Our guys are excited and not scared of the opportunity. Our guys are going to get everybody’s best shot.”
Stoughton hosts Fort Atkinson, Edgewood and Milton in Weeks 4-6, and travels to Watertown and Monroe before hosting Monona Grove to end the regular season.