Teams to watch
(In alphabetical order)
Preseason ratings run on Aug. 18
Aquinas (8-2, C-1 state quarterfinals, No. 3 final ranking): The Monarchs graduated a large and talented senior class led by all-state defensive tackle Kyle Ruth. Three players return as all-conference players — seniors Zach Chromy (6-foot, 230, OT/DE), Miles Eggleston (6-1, 190, HB/LB) and Andy Lyons (6-1, 160, HB/LB) — to lead the way.
Battle Creek (8-4, C-2 state semifinals, No. 3 final ranking): Five starters return on both sides of the ball. A small senior class is led by LB/OG AJ Hawthorne (6-0, 200), while a talented junior class has four standouts in LB/TE Slate Kraft (6-3, 175), S/RB Dylan Mettler (5-8, 165), DE/OT Luke Stueve (6-3, 230) and CB/WR Zach Zohner (5-10, 155).
BRLD (4-5): Nine starters return offensively and defensively. Size won’t be an issue with four of those players checking in at 235 pounds or heavier.
Centennial (12-1, C-2 state finals, No. 2 final ranking): The Broncos are 22-2 over the past two seasons and many of this year’s players have played major roles in that success. Three seniors — quarterback Wyatt Ehlers, lineman Caleb Cast and wide receiver/defensive back Jackson Hirschfeld — return as all-staters, part of seven offensive starters and eight on defense who are back.
Hartington Cedar Catholic (8-2): Eight total starters return, a group headlined by junior all-state lineman Rex Becker, junior standout running back Jacob Keiser and senior TE/LB Josh Pinkelman (111 tackles, two interceptions).
Norfolk Catholic (13-0, C-1 state champions, No. 1 final ranking): The clear-cut favorite in C-2 with four all-state players back from last year’s title team. Lineman Ethan Piper, a Nebraska recruit, and running back Dylan Kautz are among the best players in the state regardless of class, and they are complemented by two more returning all-state seniors in lineman Joe Teten and senior RB/S Evan Smith.
Oakland-Craig (8-2, C-2 state first round, No. 5 final ranking): The Knights must replace all-state wide receiver Garrett Seagren, but they bring back some experienced, physical players up front in seniors Cole Bures (6-3, 190), Justyn Hale (6-2, 275), Tyson Harney (6-3, 235) and junior Laurence Brands (6-5, 240).
Ponca (10-1, C-2 state quarterfinals, No. 4 final ranking): The Indians will have a four-year starter in TE/DE Jayde Rein leading the way. Thirteen starters back in total.
Sutton (7-3, C-2 state first round): The Mustangs look ready to make a deep run in the playoffs with seven starters back on both offense and defense. Senior James Griess is a returning all-state linebacker and fellow senior Brett Simonsen rushed for 1,018 yards.
Wilber-Clatonia (8-2, C-2 state first round, No. 8 final ranking): The 2016 state champions maintained their elite status last season. The Wolverines have just three starters back offensively and defensively, but seniors Colton Rezabek (IB/LB, 6-0, 180) and Husker baseball recruit Hunter Cerveny (FB/DE, 6-1, 220) provide a solid foundation.
Players to watch
QB Wyatt Ehlers, Centennial, 6-1, 185, sr.: The two-time all-stater threw for 2,568 yards and 28 TDs a year to lead the Broncos to the state finals.
WR/DB Jackson Hirschfeld, Centennial, 6-0, 170, sr.: An all-stater in both basketball and football, Hirschfeld had 55 receptions for 850 yards and nine TDs a year ago while making 50 tackles and intercepting eight passes defensively.
OT/DE Caleb Cast, Centennial, 6-3, 225, sr.: Cast had 115 tackles, 20 for losses and 10 sacks a year ago.
OL/DL Rex Becker, Hartington CC, 6-4, 275, jr.: The all-stater proved to be a difference-maker regardless which side of the ball he lined up on.
RB Dylan Kautz, Norfolk Catholic, 5-9, 185, sr.: The fastest high school athlete in the state rushed for 2,406 yards, 24 TDs and 7.7 yards per carry a year ago. Has been offered a preferred walk-on spot from Minnesota.
OT/DE Ethan Piper, Norfolk Catholic, 6-4, 285, sr.: The Nebraska football recruit has the size, strength (bench press 330 pounds) and agility (4.9 40-yard dash and 31-inch vertical jump) to jump out at college coaches.
OT/DE Joe Teten, Norfolk Catholic, 6-4, 260, sr.: An all-stater who comes from the same mold as Piper in terms of being dominant both in the offensive and defensive lines.
RB/S Evan Smith, Norfolk Catholic, 6-1, 185, sr.: As a complementary back to Kautz, Smith probably would’ve been a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago had it not been for a shoulder injury midseason.
What’s new in 2018
Defending C-1 state champion Norfolk Catholic drops down to C-2 with nearly all of its key players returning. Aquinas, a C-1 power the past two years, drops down to C-2 as well, a class where the Monarchs have won four state titles since 2011.
Games to watch
A 24: Hartington CC at BRLD.
A 31: Aquinas at Norfolk Catholic, BRLD at Ponca, Oakland-Craig at Hartington CC, Sutton at Wilber-Clatonia.
S 7: Hartington CC at Aquinas, Centennial at Battle Creek, Oakland-Craig at Ponca.
S 14: Ponca at Aquinas, Norfolk Catholic at BRLD, Sutton at Centennial.
S 21: Aquinas at Centennial.
S 28: Ponca at Battle Creek, Norfolk Catholic at Hartington CC.
O 5: Battle Creek at Norfolk Catholic.
O12: Hartington CC at Battle Creek, Yutan at Oakland-Craig, St. Paul at Centura.
O19: BRLD at Oakland-Craig, Sutton at Hastings SC, Norfolk Catholic at Ponca.