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Game of the Week -- Leopards stepping to the challenge

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

La CROSSE - La Crosse High School junior Sheldon Schmidt is already well-known as one of the state's top defensive ends. As a sophomore, he recorded 72 tackles, nine for loss and a team-best seven sacks.

This fall, La Crosse returned Schmidt and seniors Cody Lee and Kody Burns up front.

Lee and Burns combined for 46 tackles, none for loss and no sacks in 2012.

This year, teams have usually avoided Schmidt. In studying the Week 1 game against Ellis, La Crosse coach Jon Webster said he didn't think the Railroaders ever intentionally ran at Schmidt. However, Lee and Burns have upped their production considerably.

"Guys taking the challenge -- Cody and Kody have really stepped up and said, 'Hey, we are not going to let you run on our weak side, because I am over here,' " Webster said. "Kody Lee has done a tremendous job of giving centers fits."

The improved play of Lee, Burns, seniors Taylor Yohe and Marshall Jay and Andrew Jay has helped La Crosse start 3-0 and rank No. 2 in Class 2-1A in the statewide media poll. The Leopards play host to rival Plainville (1-2) on Friday night.

The 5-foot-9, 193-pound Lee and 5-10, 181-pound Burns are undersized compared to many offensive linemen, especially in a Week 3 victory against Minneapolis. They've helped La Crosse permit just 32 points, sixth-best in the classification, according to preppowerindex.com. Schmidt is significantly bigger at 6-3, 215. Lee, though, squatted 490 pounds this summer.

"It doesn't come from size, it comes from your heart," Lee said.

Lee leads the team with six tackles for loss -- no one else has more than three -- and already has 20 tackles, eight fewer than all of last season. Burns and Schmidt tie for the team high with three sacks, while Lee has a sack and five hurries.

"They are strong for their size," Webster said. "They play well, they play fast, and I think that gives us an advantage when we see the great, big offensive linemen out there."

Especially against Ellis, Lee was quickly in the backfield. He has often disrupted teams that pull the guard and try to run trap or run veer blocking schemes. Webster called Burns "a high-motor guy" and someone who always plays hard.

"You can see things a whole lot clearer when the D-line is doing a good job," senior linebacker Marshall Jay said.

Jay, a three-year starter, leads the team with 26 tackles after he moved over from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker and replaced Kip Keeley, a Shrine Bowl selection now playing for Kansas State University. Webster said La Crosse "hasn't missed a beat" with Jay, who also has three tackles for loss. He had just five combined in his first three seasons.

"I have got to be more of a leader now than in past years with Kip, Taylor (Stull), Levi (Morss)," Jay said. "It's just trying to step into the leadership role as best as I can. You have got to get the defense ready to play. You can't just slack off."

In the secondary, Yohe is in his second year as a full-time starter after he made spot starts as a freshman and sophomore because of injuries. He picked off four passes and defended 12 others as a junior. Helped by assistant coach Andrew Schroter, Yohe has improved technique. That includes reading the quarterback, breaking on the ball and watching the quarterback's shoulders.

"I feel way more comfortable this season," Yohe said. "Last year, first year starting, I was a little nervous coming out there. This year, trying to be a leader out there, it is real different."

This season, Yohe has already picked off three passes and is stronger in run support. In the sub-state loss to Meade last fall, Yohe had trouble against Buffs' all-state running back Trevin Wiens.

"The last two weeks, I have seen him more as a run support player," Webster said. "He had two big hits against Minneapolis, ones where you could hear the hits that he came up and filled and last year, I don't think he does that.

"I think some of that had to do when we played Meade last year, he came up to fill on Wiens and he bounced off," he added. "That was something that he knew that he had to get better at. I think he has challenged himself to be a better tackler."

Offensively, Yohe has posed a matchup problem with his 6-3, 176-pound frame.

Yohe, who can run a 4.7 40-yard dash and has a 30-plus inch vertical, has eight catches for 220 yards and three TDs. That includes a leaping catch for a score over Hoisington's Brandon Ball in Week 2. Yohe had 14 catches for 282 yards and four scores in 2012.

Andrew Jay started on defense as a sophomore, but saw limited offensive snaps. He has 12 catches for 242 yards and three TDs and leads the team by a big margin with 566 all-purpose yards.

"Our receivers are very confident in what they are doing," Webster said. "Our offensive line, I think does a good job of pass protecting where we don't have to have that five, six-yard gain out of our rushing attack the first play. We can get into second and short because of the passing game or even get another first down right away."