WEST SALEM — The West Salem High School football team was heading for shade and a seat during a break from practice last week when coach Justin Jehn called a player back.
That player was senior Dylan Noel, one of the few young men on the roster that has a wealth of experience at the varsity level. The conversation was short, but the message was clear: For the Panthers to continue being a successful program, Jehn needs a leader like Noel to emerge and take charge.
Noel — a 5-foot-11, 235 pound center/guard and defensive tackle for West Salem — and the rest of the offensive line will be the keys to the Panthers continuing their strong performances of recent years.
West Salem lost one of the most impactful senior classes in the Coulee Region, with the likes of John Glassmaker, Brendan Holt, Ethan Olson, Trenton Foreman, Joe Wopat, and Dalton Schams all graduating.
But the Panthers do return experience on the offensive line, with Noel being part of six seniors that were listed as offensive linemen a year ago. Noel knows that as the skill positions transition to younger players, the line can make that transition look easier by performing well.
“We like to set the tone a lot,” Noel said of the line. “We like to bring that energy and use that to motivate our teammates to get going and get that aggressive mentality going.”
Jehn has seen what Noel’s experience means to Panthers players, and watches as Noel helps guide younger players during breaks in practice. It’s that kind of hands-on, almost in-your-face leadership that Jehn says he needs Noel to provide.
“Being a leader is a risk, it’s about stepping outside your comfort zone. I think Dylan’s got potential to do that, we just need to continue to coach him up and help him realize that potential,” Jehn said.
“His performance on the field is going to continue to speak for itself, and hopefully we’ve got guys who are able to be followers and rally around him.”
Workouts at the fields across the street from the high school were a near-daily occurrence for many Panthers this summer, including Noel. Jehn said attendance was strong at the organized programs he and the coaches put together.
It was in those moments that Noel believes the team bonded, and was able to hit the ground running when practices began.
West Salem’s offensive line has good size in players like Noel, 6-foot-4 Dawson Freydenlund and 6-5 Trevor Trautsch, and Jehn saw them develop in the weight room this summer. He believes those dividends will pay off this fall.
“It feels great to know that I’m always going to be protected,” said Justin Barney, a junior who’s slated to become the starting quarterback. “They know what they’re doing, and there’s some big boys up there.”
Being a physical team on both sides of the ball has been a hallmark of West Salem’s program under Jehn, and this year’s fronts should continue that. Jehn had to chuckle at that notion, though.
“It’s kind of funny because we kind of consider ourselves a spread team, but by the same token our offensive line is real important on that,” he said.
West Salem’s new group is responsible for washing out the bad taste of last season’s ending. The Panthers were 6-1 heading into the final two weeks of the year, but losses to Onalaska and Central led to a tough WIAA first-round playoff defeat against Baldwin-Woodville.
With so many players stepping into new challenges, whether that be in new positions or just being their first time at the varsity level, Noel said he’s encouraging them to be open to whatever Jehn and coaches offer them.
“I try to motivate them to embrace their roles. Even if they’re not liking what they’re doing, just to embrace it and the coaches will notice,” Noel said. “The coaches will notice if you give your effort, and maybe move you to a spot you desire more if you work hard enough.”