Matt Schiebel wasn’t expecting his roster to shrink to 33 athletes after boasting a 45-man team last season.

The Onalaska Luther High School football team has seen a sharp drop in numbers, which has led to a squad with two seniors and many new faces. The decrease in numbers creates obvious problems of depth and inexperience, but the spirits of the Knights, who finished 2-7 last season, remain high.

“We don’t focus on the negatives of fewer numbers and things like that,” said Schiebel, who is entering his third year as head coach. “We try to encourage them to take every advantage they have and make the best of each opportunity. That’s especially important for the sophomores and juniors to see that there’s a little hope on the horizon.”

With hope building for the underclassmen, the senior class of two is will do what it can to help lay the foundation for the future. Linebacker/running back Ben Riley is one of the team’s leaders, along with classmate Emery Byus. Each had differing junior seasons, however.

Riley finished 242 rushing yards on 26 carries a year ago, which was second to then-senior Noah Matzke (769). Riley also was busy catching the ball, leading the team with 105 yards on eight receptions, including three touchdowns. The senior echoes a voice similar to Schiebel — a voice that focuses on encouraging the underclassmen.

“My class had big athletic kids, but we went from a squad of eight to a squad of two, so now we’re basically rebuilding,” Riley said. “We have to encourage (the underclassmen) to stay and encourage them to keep working and show that there’s a bright future for the team.”

Byus also is instilling encouragement into the minds of the younger athletes, but his junior season panned out a little different than Riley’s. With hip problems that caused pain when weight was put on it, the best healing solution was to simply give it time to heal. That limited Byus to three games a year ago.

But the three games were enough to show Schiebel the potential that was stored inside the 6-foot athlete.

“We saw some glimpses of what he (Byus) could do in the first couple games, and he’s going to a bright spot for us this year,” Schiebel said.

Despite a lack of senior players, Schiebel believes that his team possesses qualities that will allow it to overcome its inexperience. With a deep passion for football and a hunger for success, the Knights are focusing on what they have in their small, tight-knit team.

“These guys love football and so they’ll use that with their speed and aggression to their benefit and that will help them on defense tremendously,” Schiebel said. “With that, we’re trying to look through the numbers game and be optimistic of what the kids can do.”

Sarah Waara can be reached at Sarah.Waara@lee.net