LITTLETON — It all starts upfront for Dakota Ridge football this year.
“This will probably be the best offensive line we’ve had in six to seven years in terms of size, smart and experienced guys,” Dakota Ridge coach Ron Woitalewicz said during the Eagles’ team photo day during the first week of practice. “They (offensive line) have kind of adopted the motto of we want to run the ball when we want run the ball. It’s that mentality that other team might know what we are running, but come and stop us.”
Seniors offensive linemen Matthew Heitmann and Izaak McWilliams were both all-conference selections in the Class 4A Jeffco League last season. The two will anchor a strong offensive front that also will include juniors Jason Soderlin and Kaden Arrastia.
“If you don’t having a strong offensive line nothing on offense is going to work,” said senior James Hess, a first-team defensive lineman last season, who added his individual goal is to break Dakota Ridge’s single-season sack record of 16.
The Eagles won the hotly contested 4A Jeffco League — edging out rivals Chatfield and Bear Creek — to qualify for the 16-team 4A state tournament a year ago.
Dakota Ridge lost pretty much every skill position starter from last year’s 6-5 team. In fact, of the 33 touchdowns the Eagles scored last season, 31 were scored by players who graduated last spring. Only junior Colin Stuhr and senior Kyle Cannon are back who found the end zone last fall.
However, Woitalewicz is confident his new batch of running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and quarterback Ben Gultig can get the job done.
“We lost almost every skill kid from last year, but we might be better skill-wise then last year besides the exception of maybe running back,” said Woitalewicz, referring to graduated starting running back Jared Garcia.
Garcia carried a big load late in the season as the Eagles went on their run to qualify for the postseason. Garcia had three straight 200-yard rushing games to close out the regular season.
“Jared was a big part of our offense last year, but this year I feel we have a lot of new and upcoming guys who are willing to do whatever it takes to lead us to some wins,” said Charlie Offerdahl, a returning second-team all-conference defensive back selection and one the Dakota Ridge’s senior captains.
Gultig will take over the quarterback duties this season. The junior did get some varsity playing experience last season when Ben Biffinger went out with an injury. Gultig went 9-for-12 passing for 97 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Hernando High School in Florida.
“For Ben Gultig, this will be a good challenge for him,” Woitalewicz said of his junior stepping into the starting signal-caller role. “He got some varsity experience last year during our trip to Florida when our starting quarterback got a concussion. Ben was able to get in and play. He has been under the fire already a little bit.”
Dakota Ridge would like to start better than it did last season. The Eagles were 2-4 through their first six games before salvaging their season thanks to a four-game winning streak to close out the regular season to win the conference title.
“Our plan for this year is just to go 1-0 each week,” Heitmann said. “We aren’t really focused on non-league or league games. We just want to win each week.”
The Eagles begin the season on the road in Colorado Springs. Dakota Ridge faces Rampart at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29, at District 20 Stadium.
“I think we need to win our first game to have a domino effect for the rest of our season,” Gultig said.
Non-conference games against Monarch, Vista Ridge, Ponderosa and Vista PEAK will get Dakota Ridge ready for the key league stretch.
Defending the 4A Jeffco League title is important to the Eagles and Woitalewicz in locking up another postseason berth.
“You win the league and that guarantees you a spot in the playoffs. You are relying on Coaches Poll, MaxPreps Poll … I’m not a math guy,” Woitalewicz joked. “Win the league you know you are in and that’s taking care of business No. 1.”