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Kearney vs. Omaha North, A state football final, 11/21/17

Omaha North's Zander Gray (10) stiff-arms Kearney's Nathan Murray (4) en route to the end zone for the winning 17-yard touchdown during the Class A state final in 2017.

Teams at watch

(In alphabetical order)

Preseason rankings run Aug. 19

Bellevue West (9-2, 2017 A state quarterfinals, No. 5 final ranking): The Thunderbirds, the 2016 state champions, will be a title contender again with seven starters back on each side of the ball. They return two of the top juniors in the state in wide receiver Zavier Betts and running back Jevyon Ducker as well as senior Shane Smith, a playmaker as both a receiver and defensive back.

Creighton Prep (9-3, 2017 A state semifinals, No. 4 final ranking): With eight starters back on offense and six more on defense, the Junior Jays hope to take the next step for second-year coach Tim Johnk. With second-team Super-State senior offensive lineman Ryan Bena and senior 235-pound fullback Luke Sims leading the way, Creighton Prep figures to impose its physical will on opposing defenses.

Elkhorn South (10-2, 2017 B state semifinals, No. 4 final B ranking): The Storm won back-to-back Class B state titles in 2015 and ’16, and they have the talent and depth to compete with the top teams Class A. They will need to replace Super-State running back Moses Bryant (now at Nebraska), but the combination of senior quarterback Drew Reetz and senior running back Cooper Jewett will replace some of Bryant’s game-breaking ability.

Grand Island (6-4, 2017 A state first round): With five starters back on offense and four on defense, the Islanders have a strong junior and senior class and should be deeper than a year ago. Senior quarterback Cole Evans is a returning starter and Eric Allen (6-3, 275, Sr.) is an elite offensive lineman.

Kearney (12-1, 2017 A state runner-up, No. 2 final ranking): The Bearcats graduated another standout senior class, but there’s a strong group coming in to replace them, so expect Kearney to make another title run this season. Second-team Super-State junior speedster Miko Maessner, senior defensive end Grant Kowalski and senior defensive back Davis Skiles are the only returning starters.

Lincoln High (8-2, 2017 A state first round, No. 9 final ranking): The Links should be explosive offensively with senior Super-State quarterback Cedric Case and the duo of second-team Super-State senior CJ Jones and senior all-city player Morgan Perry leading a talented receiver corp. Senior state champion hurdler Darius Luff will lead the defense from his safety spot.

Millard North (5-5, 2017 A state first round): Rebuilding seasons have been few and far between for the Mustangs, who have five state titles, three state runner-up finishes and 24 state playoff appearances under coach Fred Petito. The Mustangs won four of their last five regular games last season to reach the playoffs and made that run with a young team that’s returning almost intact.

Millard South (6-5, A state quarterfinals, No. 8 final ranking): The Patriots knocked off Lincoln High in the first round of the playoffs and return two of the best linemen in the state in junior Kohl Herbolsheimer and senior Jayden Merriman. Yutan transfer Chase Perchal and Tyson Gerdes, both juniors, are athletic receivers and defensive backs.

Millard West (9-2, A state quarterfinals, No. 6 final ranking): The Wildcats graduated an experienced senior class which included Super-State RB Brody Belt and LB AJ Johnson. Seven starters return, however, a group led by senior linemen Cole Aniello (6-6, 300) and Conner Carroll (6-2, 240) and senior tight end Jacob Harmdierks (6-3, 200).

Omaha Burke (9-3, A state semifinals, No. 3 final ranking): The Bulldogs appear to be the preseason favorite on paper with Nebraska linebacker recruit and senior Super-Stater Nick Henrich, Super-State tight end/defensive end Chris Hickman and senior all-state running back James Burks all returning. Senior quarterback Tyler Chadwick threw for 2,250 yards and 25 TDs last season and junior wide receiver/defensive back Xavier Watts are also back.

Omaha North (12-1, A state champions, No. 1 final ranking): A pair of dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks in the semifinals against Omaha Burke and the finals against Kearney gave the Vikings their third state title in five years under coach Larry Martin. Two of the main players on that squad — first-team Super-Staters Zander Gray (RB) and Mehki Butler (OL/DL) — are back to lead another run at the title.

Omaha Westside (8-3, A state quarterfinals, No. 7 final ranking): The Warriors graduated a number of playmakers and second-team Super-State quarterback Dylan Plautz, but the cupboard is far from bare. The trio of junior Cal Weidemann, senior Joe Stegman and senior Dylan Packett combined for 62 catches and 1,181 yards, so big play ability is still there. Sophomore Avante Dickerson (5-11, 165) impressed the college coaches with his speed during camps this summer.

Players to watch

WR Zavier Betts, Bellevue West, 6-3, 190, jr.: The returning first-team Super-Stater had a breakout sophomore season with 57 receptions for 1,035 yards and 15 touchdowns. With his combination of speed, size and hands, Betts has scholarship offers from Nebraska, Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota and Purdue.

RB Jevyon Ducker, Bellevue West, 5-10, 185, jr.: As a sophomore, Ducker went off for 1,707 yards rushing and had another 450 receiving yards in piling up a Class A best 32 TDs a year ago. He has scholarship offers from Purdue and South Dakota State.

OG/DT Ryan Bena, Creighton Prep, 6-3, 265, sr.: Prep coach Tim Johnk calls Bena the best offensive lineman he’s coached in his 25 years. He’s also a force defensively.

FB/DL Luke Sims, Creighton Prep, 6-1, 235, sr.: Sims is a load for opposing defenses to deal with, rushing for 1,005 yards and 18 touchdowns a year ago.

RB Aidan Young, Elkhorn, 5-10, 170, so.: The elusive, breakaway threat averaged six yards per carry as a freshman and gained 628 yards.

RB/DB Miko Maessner, Kearney, 6-1, 180, jr.: Maessner is one of the top sprinters in the state during track in the spring, and he uses that speed to terrorize football opponents in the fall. He has scholarship offers from Iowa State, Liberty and South Dakota State and is believed to be a target of the Huskers, as well.

QB Cedric Case, Lincoln High, 6-2, 195, sr.: The first-team Super-Stater, a North Dakota recruit, threw for 3,249 yards and 35 TDs while only being intercepted four times as a junior.

WR CJ Jones, 5-8, 175, sr.; and Morgan Perry, Lincoln High, 5-9, 180, sr.: Jones, a second-team Super-Stater, hauled in 53 passes for 799 yards and six TDs, while teammate Perry had 40 catches for 700 yards and eight scores.

SS/RB Luke Reimer, Lincoln North Star, 6-2, 190, sr.: The South Dakota State commit went off for 220 yards rushing against Norfolk and another 158 against Omaha Northwest last season, his first year at North Star after transferring from an eight-man school in Ashland, Kansas.

LB/RB Caden McCormack, Lincoln Southwest, 6-2, 215, sr.: The all-city selection’s size, strength and speed makes him a recruiting target for a number of Division I programs. Currently has a scholarship offer from South Dakota State and is getting interest from a number of FCS schools.

LB Nick Henrich, Omaha Burke, 6-3, 215. sr.: The Nebraska recruit and first-team Super-Stater was relentless defensively last season with 119 total tackles, 11 sacks and 31 behind the line of scrimmage. Henrich was recruited by Power 5 powers across the country, including Wisconsin, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon, Penn State and Texas A&M.

TE/DE Chris Hickman, Omaha Burke, 6-6, 210, sr.: The first-team Super-Stater’s size and athleticism makes him the most intriguing college prospect in Nebraska from the 2019 class. He had 24 receptions for 575 yards and eight TDs on offense and was a wrecking ball on defense, piling up 46 tackles, 13 behind the line of scrimmage, four interceptions and four caused fumbles.

RB Zander Gray, Omaha North, 6-1, 225, sr.: The powerful first-team Super-State back rushed for 1,707 yards (8.6 per carry) and 25 TDs sharing time with fellow Super-Stater Milton Sargbah.

OL/DL Mehki Butler, Omaha North, 6-4, 300, sr.: When the Vikings needed to convert is short-yardage situations, they usually ran behind Butler at the left tackle spot. 

New in 2018

With the new football classification guidelines in place this season, Class A expands to 32 teams with schools having boys enrollment figures of 425 and above. Among the additions are former Class B powerhouses Elkhorn, Elkhorn South and Gretna, all of whom should improve the depth and quality of Class A football the next two seasons. All Class A football has been played on Field Turf for a number of years, but that will change this fall as Gretna will host five games on its grass field this season.

Intracity games to watch

A23: Pius X at East

A24: Southwest at North Star

A31: Northeast at East, Southwest at Southeast

S7: East at Southwest

S14: Lincoln High at Pius X, East at Southeast

S27: East at North Star

O4: Pius X at Southeast

O19: Northeast at Southeast, Lincoln High at Southwest

Games to watch

A23: Creighton Prep at Omaha North.

A24: Lincoln High at Bellevue West, Elkhorn at Elkhorn South, Kearney at Grand Island, Millard West at Millard North.

A31: Elkhorn South at Millard North, Grand Island at Lincoln High, Millard West at Omaha Burke.

S7: Lincoln High at Creighton Prep, Millard North at Millard South.

S13: Creighton Prep at Millard North.

S14: Bellevue West at Elkhorn South, Omaha Burke at Omaha North.

S20: Omaha Westside at Creighton Prep.

S28: Elkhorn South at Millard South, Millard West at Kearney.

O4: Grand Island at Millard West.

O5: Elkhorn at Gretna, Elkhorn South at Omaha Westside.

O12: Bellevue West at Omaha North, Millard South at Creighton Prep, Kearney at Lincoln High, Omaha Burke at Millard North.

O18: Omaha Westside at Millard South.

O19: Creighton Prep at Elkhorn South, Millard North at Gretna.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7437 or rpowell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @ronpowell_ljs.

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Sports reporter

Ron Powell is a longtime prep writer for the Journal Star. He covers high school football, boys basketball and track as well as state college football and Husker and professional tennis.

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