STERLING – The injury bug hit the Sterling Golden Warriors as hard as any team in the area last season. But as much as it hurt in 2021, there is a silver lining for 2022.
As much upheaval as the injuries caused in the starting lineups on both sides of the ball, there were a lot of different players who saw the field because of it.
“We had a lot of injuries – too many, really,” head coach Jon Schlemmer said during Sterling’s five-team 7-on-7 competition Thursday evening. “But there are definitely some guys that played a lot of snaps last year as young kids that helped our depth, and it has helped a lot coming into the 2022 season. It was unfortunate last year to see all those guys go down, but you’ve got to take a few positives out of it. We’ve got a lot of young kids coming back this year who played in a lot of big football games for us last year.”
A few of those guys who stepped up to carry the load are returning to the Sterling backfield. Senior Antonio Tablante led the Western Big 6 in rushing during the conference season last year and finished the season with 1,092 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards per carry while becoming the 17th Sterling player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Junior Cale Ledergerber (291 yards, TD) and senior A.J. Kested (268 yards, 4 TDs) also provided a spark in the backfield, as the Golden Warriors bring back three of their top four rushers from 2021.
“I think it helped a lot, for us and for the younger guys, that they got to see some action last year,” Kested said. “They are all able to get some experience that they didn’t have before, maybe not at the beginning of the season, but near the end, especially toward the playoffs. Playoff football is completely different, and it gets them ready for the regular season. I think they’ll be ready to go.”
It also led to an even tighter bond for the team, as many younger contributors were able to build a rapport with other teammates that might not have been possible if the starting lineup had remained static for the entire season.
Those bonds should help strengthen this year’s squad.
“This team is something special. We’ve been together ever since we were little kids, and the chemistry is just there. We’re ready to go,” Tablante said. “We’ve been looking back at every loss last year, and we want to go back and take it back. We want to take this conference championship, and hopefully a state championship. That’s our goal.”
Tablante had an especially full offseason, as he not only worked hard to get physically stronger and mentally prepared, but also spent lots of time touring the Midwest and attending football camps at several colleges and universities.
He put in miles to South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio, in addition to making several stops in Illinois, and the visits paid off. He has a Division I offer from FCS Western Illinois University, as well as Division II offers from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the University of St. Francis in Joliet.
“It’s definitely been different than last offseason. I just now started the recruiting process and started going on visits to colleges, and it’s a whole different atmosphere,” Tablante said. “It’s just really fun going on all these visits, and it’s been a grind; that’s a good word for this offseason, it’s really been a grind. We started fall camp a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve been getting after it.
“It kind of applies more pressure to perform, but I’m built for that pressure, I feel like. It fires me up to get those offers and show schools what I can do.”
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound running back also will play some linebacker this season, and Schlemmer has been impressed with the dedication Tablante has shown in getting ready for his senior season.
Schlemmer also feels that because there might be a few more guys to consistently help carry the load this year, Tablante will be able to show even more to recruiters.
“He’s a good player. He’s worked really hard in the weight room – there’s a couple of senior kids that have done that – and he was a big kid last year, but he’s changed his body even more,” Schlemmer said. “I feel there’s a lot of help back there for him with a couple different quarterbacks and a couple of other backs, so it’s not like defenses are going to be able to key on him. We’ve got other guys, and I think that’s going to make him that much more effective.
“He’s also going to get some nice sniffs on the other side of the ball, too, so we’re going to play as many guys as we can and just try to wear people down and bring our offense and attack people.”
That aggressive attitude is shared by his players. With 18 playoff appearances in the past 19 seasons, and 19 straight years with a winning record, the Golden Warriors are confident in their brand of football – but also not afraid to incorporate new things.
“We’ve got a lot of new stuff coming in, a lot of new passing stuff, but we’ll have that same physical run offense and run defense. We just want to be dominant and push the ball down the field,” Kested said. “Leadership is going to be the big key for us, having everyone be able to get on everyone else to work hard and give maximum effort. Everyone wants to make sure they do their job, and we’re going to push each other to play our best.”
And after last season ended with a first-round playoff exit – the first time since missing the playoffs in 2014 that the Warriors haven’t made it to at least the second round – they’re hungry to get back on the field and get that sour taste out of their mouth.
“They’re not just hungry, they’re starving,” Schlemmer said with a grin. “The way that our crew has worked in the weight room this year is something that we’ve never seen since I’ve been here, and it’s all player-driven and player-led, which is such a huge part of it. Some of our key kids didn’t play in those last couple football games last year, and that really stung them.
“I haven’t had a crew as excited to get out here for stuff like tonight’s 7-on-7, and then obviously when we get into fall camp, they’re really excited for that. We’re real excited, but there’s a long way to go still.”