Laramie High School football practice wasn’t going to start until 4:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Before all the other players even drove into the parking lot, there was No. 55 at 4 p.m. — fully padded, helmet nearby and wearing a white practice jersey at the north end of the alternate field.

Around senior defensive end Benjamin Kruzich were his friends holding up blocking pads or having water at the ready as he went through his own drills.

“I was just getting my early reps and trying to be in the best shape I possibly can be throughout the season to stay healthy — just working on the little things, because little things win games,” Kruzich said.

Kruzich grew up in Deer Lodge, Montana, and recently spent a year experiencing Palmer, Alaska, located at the opening of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The area, mostly commonly called the Mat-Su Valley, is in south-central Alaska, south of the Alaska Range and about 35 miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska.

Kruzich is the youngest of two older brothers, Garrett and Jacob, and sister Paige, who is currently in the United States Coast Guard. His mother Paula and father Todd, who is a retired welder, wanted to see what it was like in a land where everything is bigger.

“We were looking for something new and wanted to go try it seeking a new adventure,” Kruzich said.

“It wasn’t the right thing for us and we came back to what we know: Montana and Wyoming.

“Honestly, living up there is not good. But I highly recommend to vacation there.”

While deciding where to come back in the lower 48 states, they chose to come to Laramie where his brothers could attend the University of Wyoming.

Kruzich, now at 6-foot and 215 pounds, has played mostly football since the third grade and has wrestled since his sophomore year. At Palmer High School, Kruzich played tight end and middle linebacker. It was at linebacker that he earned second team all-state and all-conference honors.

He then transformed himself to a leaner, quicker player since his last season in pads.

“I was actually 250 in Alaska and lost 40 pounds over the summer,” Kruzich said. “I was tired of being a little overweight and wanted to be in the best shape I possibly could be in for my senior season — especially coming down here to a whole new program with all these crazy, flying around guys all the time. I ran, lifted and ate well. I just can’t believe it — I can go through all of practice without being tired.

“I met coach (Clint) Reed, who reached out, and is really good guy. Then, I met all the other coaches and players the first week of practice. They’ve all been treating me great and I just love the program here.”

Kruzich plays offensive right guard and right defensive end, a position he wasn’t sure about at the start.

“I was a little upset about it first,” Kruzich said. “But the more I thought about it, it takes somebody pretty good to play defensive end and I got more excited, kept going harder at practice and got better. Now, it is a position I just love.”

Kruzich has been a defensive force in three games so far. He is tied for the lead in Class 4A with 15.3 defensive points per game. He has 10 assisted tackles and two solo tackles, but most of his damage has been six tackles for loss, two sacks, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup during critical moments of the games to stop drives.

The other two players at the top of 4A defensively are Cheyenne East senior middle linebacker Landin Eldridge and senior teammate Jason Upton at safety.

But the only stat Kruzich cares about is 2-1 — Laramie’s record.

“We are playing really good as a team — I’m mainly focused on our team,” Kruzich said. “The individual rankings are great, but I just want the team ranking to be the highest.”

Taking on No. 1

The Plainsmen (2-1) will hit the road to play No. 1-ranked Casper Natrona (3-0) at 7 tonight.

The Mustangs have won 13 straight games against Laramie, including 44-6 in last season’s opening playoff quarterfinals. Laramie also lost to Natrona 42-10 in the regular season in Laramie.

The last time the Plainsmen beat the Mustangs was 49-28 in 2001 in Laramie.

The matchup features two of the top rushing teams in 4A. Natrona is second with 299 yards per game, Laramie is third at 243.7 yards per contest. Natrona is dominating defensively against the run at No. 1 allowing just 20 yards per game. Laramie is sixth allowing 175.7 yards on the ground.

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