WEST FARGO-Much to the delight of teams in the Eastern Dakota Conference and beyond, the West Fargo Packers football team will be virtually unrecognizable when it takes the field for the first time in the 2018 regular season.
The Packers firmly established themselves as the class of North Dakota 3A football a year ago, winning all 12 of their games by an average of 30.4 points.
The banner season was capped with a blitzing of Minot in the state championship game, as the Packers outscored the Magicians 36-7 in the second half en route to a 56-28 win and the program's first state title since 2003.
Though turnover is to be expected with such dominant teams, it came in a particularly large dose for West Fargo, which waved goodbye to a 23-player senior class that was responsible for an overwhelming majority of their production on both sides of the ball. Dual-threat quarterback Andy Gravdahl, who threw for 1,773 yards, ran for 384 more and accounted for 24 touchdowns, is gone, as is top wideout Joe Pistorius, who had a conference-best 688 yards a season ago.
Taking an even bigger hit was the run game, which will be without its top four rushers from 2017. This includes tailbacks Alexander Sell and Jared Franek, who combined for more than 1,000 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground.
Franek was also the top tackler on a defense that lost nine starters, including all four members of a secondary Jay Gibson called "the best we've ever coached," in his 27 years as the Packer head man.
While Gibson isn't concerned about rolling with so many new pieces, he admits this year will present a serious challenge, as a 14-player senior class will be unusually thin.
"About once every five years, we get a football class where there's under 20 players," he said. "And this is under 15. Even though a lot of them play, that doesn't make 22."
After hitting the ground running last preseason, players say things have been moving at a much more deliberate pace this summer.
"Last year a lot of guys knew (what they were doing) from the start," senior offensive and defensive lineman EJ Langstaff said. "This year it's a lot more developing and seeing how we click together as a team."
Still waiting to click is an offense that failed to find the end zone in a recent hour-long scrimmage against West Fargo Sheyenne.
But despite a few struggles, Gibson says he liked a lot of what he saw, particularly from a run game he expects to carry the load early in the season. Juniors Michael Johnson and Joel McIntosh are each expected to get 15-20 carries a game behind what Gibson calls "a real good offensive line."
The running attack will try to lessen the pressure on new quarterback Cooper Sahli, who struggled a bit during Thursday's scrimmage, completing 3-of-10 passes with an interception.
Defensively, the Packers expect to rely on a front-seven that returns two starters. Leading the way will be senior linebacker Luke Lennon, who was second on the team with 41 tackles in 2017.
Big success tends to bring about big expectations from the outside, and that's especially true for a defending state champion on a 25-game regular season winning streak.
While Packer players are antsy to try and duplicate the success of past teams, they acknowledge getting to that level will be a gradual process.
"If you ask any team out there, their ultimate goal is to win state," junior defensive back and wide receiver Dustin Mertz said. "Obviously that's ours too. But what we really want to do is work hard every single week and get better every single week so we can get to that goal."
If any pressure is being put on the team, Gibson insists it isn't coming from anyone in the locker room.
"(Winning state championships) has never been my objective," he said. "If you take care of business and you don't have injuries and you love your teammates and you play as a team, you can do amazing things. My expectations are no different, it's other people's."
Fans won't have to wait to see how the Packers stack up against good competition, as a state-title rematch with Minot awaits in Friday's season opener, a day Gibson says can't arrive soon enough.
"We are very inexperienced, and we need to play," he said.
Aug. 24: vs. Minot, 7 p.m.
Aug. 30: at Bismarck, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7: vs. West Fargo Sheyenne, 7 p.m.
Sept. 14: vs. Bismarck Legacy, 6 p.m.
Sept. 21: at Grand Forks Red River, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28: at Fargo North, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5: vs. Fargo South, 7 p.m.
Oct. 11: at Grand Forks Central, 7 p.m.
Oct. 17: vs. Fargo Davies, 7 p.m.