L'ANSE - Mark Leaf would be the first person to tell you that the 2011 football season didn't go as planned for the L'Anse High School football team.
But the Purple Hornets' coach is confident that his charges can turn around last year's 2-7 mark.
"I think we have a good combination of speed and size on the roster," Leaf said. "We were close in quite a few games last year with a pretty young team, and I think the experience we gained will help us."
The 2012 L’Anse Purple Hornets: Pictured back row, from left, are Jadon Delene, Gaven Picciano, Joey Kemppainen, Jeff Roth, Jacob Ostermeyer, Jim Veker, Cody Goldsworthy and coach Mark Leaf. Pictured in the front row are Joey Beauprey, Chris Johnson, Keith Denomie, Logan Roe, Jake McGahan and Alex Karcher. Missing from photo are Casey Carter, Jonny Magaraggia, Brandon Scroggs, Robert Ripley and Cody Kinnunen. (Paul Peterson photo)
The LHS offense returns an All-West PAC performer in junior tailback Jim Veker, who rushed for more than 850 yards and tallied 12 touchdowns last fall, despite missing some time with an injury.
"Jimmy is in his third year as a starter. He's a year older and a litle bit stronger (6-foot-3, 200 pounds)," Leaf said. "But he hasn't lost any quickness, he's still a threat to go the distance on any play."
Veker will be joined in the backfield by senior fullback Cody Goldsworthy (6-3, 215) and junior Gaven Picciano. Junior Joey Beauprey and sophomore Brandon Kemppainen have also looked good in the preseason.
Picciano, a transfer from Baraga, was ineligible all of last season. But he led the Vikings in rushing two years ago as a freshman.
"That group of kids gives us size and quickness," Leaf said. "I believe our ground game will be very good."
Junior quarterback Jacob Ostermeyer returns after putting together a solid second half a year ago. Leaf says the Hornets will throw the ball if the ground game bogs down.
"Jacob Ostermeyer is a year older and he throws a nice ball. I think he's going to be much improved," Leaf said.
The offensive line is another area where the Hornets should benefit from a year of seasoning.
No less than three juniors, center Alex Karcher (5-11, 325) and tackles Brandon Scroggs (6-3, 280) and Keith Denomie (6-2, 245) were starters.
"Those three kids had to learn the hard way as sophomores," Leaf said.
There's healthy competition for the other line spots with seniors Jacob McGahan (6-3, 205) and Logan Roe (6-0, 185) battling juniors Robert Ripley (6-3, 240) and Casey Carter (5-8, 235) for time.
The end spots are being contested for by senior Jeff Roth, juniors Jonny Magaraggia and Jadon Delene and sophomore Chris Johnson.
Veker will handle the punting and placekicking chores.
The Purple Hornets allowed an average of 31 points a game last season and Leaf knows that has to change.
"That's an area we must get better in. I think we have the talent to improve."
Karcher, Scroggs and Denomie will be get a lot of time in the interior of defensive line, with Ripley, Roe and McGahan also in the mix.
The linebacking will be led by Goldsworthy, who led the team in tackles a year ago.
"He (Goldsworthy) is an outstanding defensive player ... I think he'll be one of our leaders," Leaf said.
Picciano will also get time at LB, with Kemppainen also in the mix.
The secondary lost a key player in two-time All-U.P. performer Alex VanWagner.
Ostermeyer, Roth and Veker appear to be set in the defensive backfield. A number of others, including senior Joey Hansen and junior Cody Kinnunen, are vying for time.
The L'Anse coach sees an interesting race in the WestPAC.
"West Iron won it all a year ago and has everyone back. Northland Pines still has a great tailback (Austin Ramesh) returning and Calumet is always good," Leaf said.