It's never a good thing when the injury list is almost as long as the active roster, but that's the scenario facing the Blair Oaks Falcons as the season opener rapidly approaches.
"It's been a unique season from the standpoint of already, before we've even hit the field for a ball game, we've dealt with so many," Blair Oaks coach Brad Drehle said.
The list of the walking wounded looks like the pregame introductions on Monday Night Football:
• Joey Bernskoetter, senior (viral meningitis).
• Dalton Fifer, junior (back injury).
• Collin Luebbering, senior (knee).
• Levi Dial, sophomore (knee).
• Tanner Lueckenhoff, sophomore (concussion).
• Mason Gipe, freshman (broken ankle).
And that doesn't even count the players milling around the Falcon Athletic Complex in walking boots, which includes at least two freshmen and two upperclassmen.
Making the losses even more costly is one characteristic common to many.
"The crazy thing about it is it's hit us on the line," Drehle said. "We're in the situation where we're trying to determine whether we have enough linemen to play (the season opener) Friday and then (freshman and JV) games on Monday. We've got the skill kids around them, we're just out of big bodies."
There have been so many changes several players have had to switch numbers because they're moving from running back or receiver to a spot on the line.
And it's made for some interesting discussions in the coaches' office.
"There are interesting conversations we've had the past couple days as coaches," Drehle said. "You don't normally go through those scenarios of "What if so-and-so gets hurt?' Or "What if this?' Or "What if that?' It's presented a unique situation for us from that standpoint.
"You get to the point of, "Who's the next one up?' We've gone through all the guys we thought were the next ones, and now you're to that next group."
WITH THE WAY the preseason has gone, it's hard to think of anything as definite. But here's the offensive line, as it stands right now: senior Corbin Singer (6-0, 210) at right tackle, junior Cole Bisges (5-10, 170) at right guard, senior Hayden Haney (5-9, 200) at center, junior Peyton Wilde (5-9, 180) at left guard and sophomore Chance Cumpton (6-1, 195) at left tackle.
That group includes some players who logged significant playing time on last year's team that advanced to the Class 2 state title game and are familiar with the speed of the game on the varsity level. Drehle said there are a few players who could play key roles as backups.
"We'll look for J.J. Kresl (6-3, 205) to step up as a senior on the offensive line and help us if need be, and Patrick Murray (6-3, 205) and Nick Stegemann (6-0, 220) are two juniors who, if called upon, are going to have to step up. They did some good things for us in camp," Drehle said. "Those kids have been through our program, they lift and work all the time. They are kids who are here every morning, they don't miss. They're program kids and they're proud and they're going to go in and fight and claw and do what needs to be done."
But a problem arises when you consider how the Falcons normally do business.
"Defense is probably the place where (the injuries) puts us with a concern," Drehle said. "The same kids that are playing offensive line are playing defensive line.
"What this will do is eventually give us depth (when the injured players return) and we'll have kids who are seasoned with varsity experience and will be playing faster and all that's going to be good for us."
On the defensive side, Bisges and Cumpton will play the ends, with Singer and Haney inside. Providing depth at the inside spots is senior Kole Rackers (5-9, 160), who will be adjusting to a new position.
"He's a kid that's played corner his entire career," Drehle said. "We were looking for somebody, and he said, "I'll do it." He ran out there and has played hard. You've got to respect a senior that is willing to do that for his team."
That's just one of many changes that could result from the injuries.
"We have to try and take the talents of the kids we have and use them, so that may force us to change some scheme things," Drehle said. "The ideal situation from a defensive standpoint is we want to play a 4-2-5. Let's say something happens and we have to morph that into something that looks more like a 3-4. If we're able to do that, it may give us some flexibility and some additional weapons to use come playoff time."
THERE HAS BEEN one positive on the injury front. Injuries sustained last year gave crucial playing time to players who will reap the benefits this season.
Case in point: sophomore quarterback Jordan Hair.
When starting signal-caller Daniel Castillo went down last year, Hair got some key experience, including the first two games of district play.
"What he's seen is game speed, that's the biggest thing," Drehle said. "When you step out there, there's such a huge difference between playing at the freshman or JV level and stepping up and playing at the varsity level.
"... When you start off as a freshman, you've got a window to throw in as big as the room you're sitting in. You get to the varsity level and you've got about three yards. You get to the college level and you've got about two feet. You get to the professional level and you've got about six inches. That's the difference between looking like a hero and looking like a goat.
"He's experienced some of that. He's seen how tight that window can be and if you hold it too long, the defense reacts."
Rounding out the backfield are junior running backs Dominic Jamerson and Caleb Bischoff.
"Caleb is a physical runner who's going to bring a lot to the table," Drehle said. "You can't just discount him, because he has the ability to do things. He scored his first touchdown (in his first varsity game) on a pass reception. He scored his second one on his first carry (of his second varsity game). The kid has played 15 games as a varsity starter and he's ready to play.
"Caleb is very physical and Dominic has speed. Dominic has the ability to make plays in space and we have to find ways to get him there."
Backing up those two are junior Alex Gaydos and sophomore Gavin Herst. Adam Schell, a sophomore who is also the backup at quarterback, provides depth, as does junior Mikel Drehle, the coach's son, and sophomore Cole Stockman.
Haydn Lock, a senior, and Drehle are the main targets for Hair in the passing game.
"Haydn and Mikel, they really compliment each other really well," Brad Drehle said. "Haydn is a big target who does a great job of going and getting the football. Haydn is a kid we have a tremendous amount of respect for, the way he's handled himself and grown up over the past year. He's really taken charge and become a leader.
"Mikel does a good job out there, he runs good routes and does a good job of getting physical and blocking when he needs to."
Stockman is the tight end, although Lock could also spend some time there.
"Haydn has enough abilities and he's a very intelligent kid, so he gives us the opportunity to move him around a little bit," Drehle said. "He can play a lot of different places, although his best position and where's he going to benefit us the most is if he's outside. But he has the ability to step in and do other things and is willing to do it."
C.J. Closser will come in as a slot receiver, as will Rackers. Also in the mix is sophomore Owen Luebbering.
"(Luebbering) is a big, tall kid who has got huge hands," Drehle said. "He needs to be a little more physical as a blocker, but he offers us a lot from the standpoint that he's a big target."
BACKING UP THOSE defensive linemen will be a cast of several players.
The inside linebackers in the 4-2-5 scheme are Gaydos and Bischoff, with Herst backing them up.
The safeties, or what could pass for outside linebackers in other schemes, are Lock and Wilde. Jacob Wilbers, a junior, will also get playing time.
At safety, it's been Stockman and Schell.
"They've been rotating there - Adam is a better pass defender and Cole is a much better run-stopper," Drehle said. "So as the situation warrants, we'll try to rotate them into the right place."
Jamerson and Mikel Drehle are the cornerbacks, with junior Chris Cooper and Closser serving as backups.
"Because of the nature of the way we play, those kids are going to have to be ready, because they're going to see time," Brad Drehle said.
WHEN IT COMES to special teams, Cooper will handle all of the kicking duties and be backed up by Schell. Haney will be the long-snapper and Closser will be the holder.
Several players will be in the mix as kick returners, although Bischoff and Jamerson will get the nod first.
"C.J. Closser and Adam Schell will both see time there and will probably return punts," Drehle said. "It may be the sort of thing where early in the game it may be Bischoff and Jamerson, then later in the game it will be Closser and Schell."
As is usually the case with the Falcons, the punting will be handled by the quarterback.
"(Hair) does a pretty good job," Drehle said. "Jordan is a competitor, that's the biggest thing about him. He's going to work, and if he's not good at something, he works really hard to get better at it. He'll do well for us."