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High school football: Big boys in trenches key to Raiders' success

Size matters

Where’s the beef in Franklin Grove?

A good place to start is the offensive line for the Ashton-Franklin Center football team, which boasts size uncommon for a Class 1A squad.

The front wall of left tackle Bobby Larke (6-foot-4, 258 pounds), left guard Nathaniel Voss (5-11, 251), center Kevin Kurz (6-4, 181), right guard Gage Parks (5-10, 226) and right tackle Aiden Ellsworth (6-1, 213) average 225.8 pounds.

Mere size, however, only begins to tell the story of a unit third-year head coach Brad Winterland thinks is going to be one of the strengths of his team.

“I think that they fit in well with the system, that’s the most important part,” Winterland said. “They can move well for how big they are, and they’re extremely physical. The way we like to run the ball, that’s going to be essential.”

Kurz, a starter at center the past two seasons at the fresh-soph level, likes the fact he has two returning varsity starters flanking him in Voss and Parks.

“I always know that these two guards have my back,” Kurz said. “They know what they’re doing for sure, and that’s one of the main goals that you have to have.”

Voss and Parks are expected to do more than neutralize an opponent’s defensive tackles, according to Winterland.

“The big thing with the guards is being able to get to the next level,” Winterland said. “You see the size of them, and you find it hard to believe they can move well, but they can. Both of them can rip past somebody and get on a linebacker.”

The guards are also the main double-teamers on the offensive line, so Voss and Parks have to be agile enough to get to a spot to help the ballcarrier squirt through to the secondary.

“We just determine it throughout the game, where our best advantages are at,” Winterland said. “That’s why we like these guys, because they’re big and physical for the 1-on-1s, yet they can get to the next level when we have to release and leave somebody unblocked.”

While the center and two guards are experienced players, the tackles are not. Larke went through preseason drills as a freshman, then quit the team. He was the team manager a year ago.

“I just never had an interest in the game until the last few years, so I figured I might as well go out, because varsity is where it really counts,” Larke said.

Larke will man the all-important left tackle position, and will have to protect the blind side of quarterbacks Bret Gittleson and Jacob Hilliker.

“I like the important feeling I get with the position, especially being a starter,” Larke said.

Ellsworth played as a freshman, but didn’t as a sophomore or junior. He missed being a part of the action.

“All my friends went out for football, and I kind of just stayed home and did nothing,” Ellsworth said. “It’s a good transition.”

Collectively, the quintet will be the key to an offense that isn’t flashy, but when operating effectively, churns out first downs and keeps the ball away from opponents.

“It’s good to see all five of our guys looking for the big blocks and looking to drive people and to spring big plays,” Winterland said. “We’ve had a few guys here and there in the past we’ve really liked with physicalness, and not to take anything away from those guys, but we’ve got five of them that are all on the same page.”

The Raiders are coming off a 5-4 season, their first over .500 since going 11-1 in 2005. They came up short of the playoffs, however, and that is something they’d like to change.

“We almost got to the playoffs last year,” Ellsworth said, “and this year, I think we can really do it.”

Oh so close

• AFC was one of 16 teams with five wins that did not qualify for the playoffs in 2012. The Raiders’ 5-4 record was their first season finishing above .500 since back-to-back playoff runs in 2004-05.

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