SULTAN — If there is one message that first-year Sultan head football coach Jim Kruckenberg wants to get across to his players, it’s that he understands where they come from.
Kruckenberg, who was an assistant coach at Glacier Peak last season, is a Sultan alum who understands that some of the members of the community have to overcome challenges. It’s one of the reasons he’s not letting any of the challenges he faces overwhelm him.
When Kruckenberg took the job, his first order of business was finding a way to get some of the Turks’ outdated equipment replaced. The team now has new helmets, shoulder pads and girdles.
“These kids have never seen such nice gear,” Kruckenberg said. “The shoulder pads, we didn’t have this nice of gear at GP. It’s unbelievable. I had to do that to show the change in culture to get the kids to buy in.”
Kruckenberg said that if he shows his players he’s willing to work hard for them, they will work hard for him.
Next on his agenda was bringing more intensity to the practice field, so he implemented a lot of the same philosophies used at Glacier Peak.
“We have treated this very much like a GP practice,” Kruckenberg said. “Kids aren’t used to flying around non-stop. They’re used to running a drill and guys standing around. We don’t stand around, everybody is moving and it’s been received very well.”
In fact, it was the first thing senior offensive and defensive lineman James Dodd mentioned when he was asked how things have changed under Kruckenberg.
“Energy is a lot higher than it’s been in the past and we come to practice ready to go,” Dodd said.
A constant challenge for the Turks has been to stay competitive despite low turnout numbers. That challenge remains. The Turks have just 36 players, but Kruckenberg is finding a way to make that a positive rather than a negative.
“It’s not really a challenge, it’s nice,” Kruckenberg said. “Each kid gets tons of reps. … It’s really good for them.”
However, Kruckenberg does acknowledge the downside of the low numbers — lack of depth.
“One injury here could demolish my season,” Kruckenberg said. “That’s is certainly a scare, but you treat it like this, ‘One guy goes down, next guy up.’ That’s the way it has to be. We don’t have a choice.”
The players have taken on their coach’s demeanor.
“For me, the low numbers kind of worry me sometimes because some people are going to get tired,” Dodd said. “It’s always nice to have a lot of people at practice, more people to go against with different styles. But with our numbers, it’s all right because we’re just going to work no matter what. The groups are small, but we just get in and work and get out.”
Kruckenberg said he hopes to see those numbers rise in the coming years. His focus on Sultan’s youth program shows his commitment to that. At a youth camp over the summer, Kruckenberg said 35-40 kids participated, but he’s not satisfied with that number.
“That’s OK, but I know there are hundreds of kids riding their bikes around,” he said. “They need to be a part of this. This is a positive thing for their life. They need that in their life — something positive.
“It’s you’re going to be successful, it starts with the youth,” he added. “You have to have a pipeline. Right now we have Monroe and Monroe is becoming quite the powerhouse. Sultan and Monroe are really close. I don’t want kids trickling off to Monroe because they think if they go there they’re going to win a state championship. We can win a state championship right here if everybody buys in.”
In order to get to that championship, the Turks will have to improve to the point where they can compete with the likes of Archbishop Murphy and King’s on a consistent basis. The Wildcats (2A) and Knights (1A) are once again the class of the league, but it’s largely open after that. Some coaches picked Sultan to finish as high as third this season.
Senior running back/linebacker Tanner Belcher said one of his goals for his final season is to beat King’s.
Belcher will be one of the biggest keys to the Turks’ success this season. Kruckenberg expects him to have a major impact on both sides of the ball.
“I imagine Tanner to have 150 tackles on defense this year,” Kruckenberg said. “He’s the man on defense — fast, downhill runner, smashing guys — he does it very well.
“He’s a special running back,” Kruckenberg added. “He’s not going to slash you and spin out. He’s a downhill runner and he’s going to put his shoulder down and run you over. He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever met. He’s a state wrestler and he’s tough as nails. You don’t see high school kids like that with that mentality. There is no pain in his mind, it is just downhill run. It’s going to be fun to watch him do that for sure.”
Belcher’s goal of beating King’s is a lofty one, but not surprising after listening to Kruckenberg, who isn’t scared to face the traditional powerhouses.
“I’m confident and I envision us being 4-0 going into the Archbishop Murphy game,” he said. “I know Archbishop Murphy. I’ve seen them at camp and they have D-1 athletes all over the board and we’re going to go punch them in the mouth as much as we can. We will never, never let up. If the score is 50-0, we will not stop fighting. That’s one thing people don’t understand about Sultan people. We’ll fight. You put us in a fight and we’re ready. I’m trying to install that in their minds ‘You’re Sultan kids, you’re tough.’”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.