ST. CLOUD -- The Apollo Eagles are looking to turn the page on a difficult 2015 campaign that saw them finish with a 1-8 record. The Eagles fell to Bemidji in the first round of the Section 8AAAAA playoffs.

"One of the things we noticed from last year was how tough the (District) is," coach Justin Skaalerud said. "We had to increase our strength, that's been a focus all summer."

"We brought in a new strength coach, emphasized eating properly and talked about fueling the body to make sure we are ready to go," Skaalerud said.

One reason for optimism is the return of quarterback Joey Atkinson. As a junior in 2015, Atkinson passed for nearly 1,800 yards and connected on 13 touchdowns against ten interceptions.

(Photo: Alex Svejkovsky, WJON)

"Getting more varsity experience helps a lot," Atkinson said. "I've gotten a lot more comfortable with the offense."

"Joey is a returning starting quarterback and All-Conference player," Skaalerud said at a recent practice. "We expect him to be our field general out there and if he continues to grow he will be a key part of the offense.

"Our biggest strength is probably our throwing," senior offensive lineman Luke Dunsmoor said. "Atkinson back there in the pocket, he has a good arm, and we have good receivers like Peter Nelson."

"I've been playing with (Atkinson) since ninth grade," Nelson said. "It's just pretty nice having him, because he's knows where to throw the ball and I know the routes to run."

The Eagles lose a few key players from the past couple of seasons, including wide receiver Ethan Novacinski and Cole Johnson, but return Nelson (39 catches, 513 yards, 4 TD) and Jayden Lister (10 catches, 122 yards and one TD).

(Photo: Alex Svejkovsky, WJON)

"We are going to have an interesting mixture this year of three-year starters and younger guys that had a very successful freshman season," Skaalerud said.

"We have a few other receivers who can catch the ball pretty well," Nelson said, noting James Blommel and Lister as players he expects to step up.

Atkinson says he is optimistic about the 2016 season because of the Eagles' returning players.

"We have a bunch of guys returning this year," Atkinson said. "That's something we are really looking forward to."

"Our biggest strength is the guys we do have coming back," Skaalerud says. "We have 27 seniors out this year and that's where it's going to start- with their leadership."

Dave Overlund