Except for his freshman year at Doane, Connor O’Toole has played on the same football team as Riley Homolka every season since fifth grade.
That time together with his fellow Wilber-Clatonia standout will come to an end Saturday when the Tigers play at Midland (1 p.m. kickoff) for what will be the unofficial title game for the mythical Nebraska division of the Great Plains Athletic Conference. Both Doane and Midland are 2-0 this season against the other Nebraska GPAC schools, Concordia and Hastings.
“I’ve been playing behind him (Riley) for as long as I can remember, and he’s made my job a lot easier,” said O’Toole, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound linebacker who is the Tigers’ leading tackler with 68 stops this season. He’s also broken up five passes and deflected five more. “It will be weird not being out there with him (Homolka) next season.”
The one year they were separated, the 6-2, 260-pound Homolka helped lead Wilber-Clatonia to the Class C-2 state championship in 2017 as a first-team Super-State lineman. Homolka then reported to Doane 30 pounds lighter than that as a freshman, and he’s spent the past three seasons gradually putting that weight back on.
“It’s nice knowing if I missed a tackle, Connor has always been there to make it,” said Homolka, who also has two forced fumbles and a blocked kick this season. “I’m gradually getting back to my playing weight, but I know the coaches want me putting the weight back on faster than I have.”
This fall, Homolka began rising to the expectations for him when he arrived on campus. He has 47 tackles, 11 of which have been for losses, and four sacks. He’s provided a 1-2 punch with senior Anthony Malone on the defensive line as Malone has lived up to his preseason selection to the NAIA Senior Football Classic on Dec. 14 in Savannah, Georgia.
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Malone “plays in the backfield,” says Doane head coach Chris Bessler, and his stats this season show that. Twelve of his 56 tackles have been behind the line of scrimmage, a number that includes three sacks. Malone is also credited with two quarterback hurries.
Being selected to the all-star game “was really an award for what I had done my first three years here,” said Malone, a Centennial, Colorado, native. “It motivated me to get better this season, but still do it within the confines of the team concept.”
Bessler said all three defenders bring something positive to the Tiger defense.
“Anthony (Malone) is very explosive with a motor that never stops,” the Doane coach said. “Connor (O’Toole) is one of the most versatile guys we have. He came here originally as a quarterback, we switched him to free safety as a sophomore and then moved him to linebacker as a junior. He’s been good at all of them.
“Riley is a very talented kid who earned the starting job in fall camp, then had a breakout season for us,” Bessler said. “We’re excited to see what he can do next year if he can continue to put on weight and get stronger.”
Doane (4-6, 4-4 GPAC) has played one of the toughest schedules in the nation this season. The Tigers have faced three teams ranked in the NAIA top 20 (No. 1 Morningside, No. 5 Northwestern and No. 19 Ottawa, Arizona), as well as NCAA Division II No. 3 Tarleton State.