In football-crazed states like Iowa and Nebraska, it’s never too early to begin looking ahead to next season. After all, two-a-days begin in less than 100 days. With that in mind, we continue our weekly look at some of the top teams to watch in both states for the upcoming season.
Coach: Jeff Ashby (26-7, three seasons)
Last season: 11-2, Nebraska D1 runner-up
Key players: LB-TE Drew Ott (6-3, 217, Jr.); QB-DB Sean Findley (5-9, 160, Sr.); DL Austin Dodson (5-11, 230, Sr.); RB Derreck Eastman (5-6, 190, Sr.); OL-DL Logan Rath (6-3, 220, Jr.)
Outlook: Is it possible to graduate 11 of 16 starters – including the most prolific passer in state history – after finishing second in the state playoffs and still be even better the following season? Jeff Ashby says the answer is yes.
"Even though we have very few returning starters, we have several players with a great deal of experience in big-time games," said the coach. "They understand what we are trying to accomplish and how we are going to get there." Ashby expects his defense to be much improved from last season and the Hornets’ offense to remain highly productive despite the departure of Nate Most, who threw for more passing yards than any quarterback in state history before earning a scholarship to Wayne State College.
Findley is Giltner’s new quarterback. He was a team leader on the other side of the ball last season, picking off five passes and recording 83 tackles as a safety. Ashby says Ott, an all-state pick as a sophomore, has the rare chance to emerge from 8-man football and play college football at the Division I level. He recorded more than 200 tackles as a sophomore.
Prediction: Giltner will improve throughout the season and should be a top contender when the state playoffs begin. The Hornets move down a class to D-2 this fall, as does Howells, the team that beat Giltner in last year’s D-1 championship game.
St. Albert (Council Bluffs, Iowa)
Coach: Kevin Culjat (14-0, one season)
Last season: 14-0, Iowa 1A champion
Key players: RB Jake Gentile (6-1, 190, Sr.); WR-DB Stephen O'Neill (5-10, 170, Sr.); LB Mickey Russell (6-0, 205, Sr.); K Gabe Meis (6-1, 189, Sr.); TE-DE Jesse Parks (6-5, 215, Sr.)
Outlook: The Falcons have become the dominant force in Class 1A football, winning four state championships the last six seasons. Culjat, who led the team to an undefeated record his first year after being promoted to head coach, welcomes back his leading rusher and tackler, along with 11 other experienced starters. Two-time all-state quarterback Jake Waters and most of last year’s starting offensive line has departed, so the offense will rely heavily upon the production of Gentile. He ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns and was named MVP of the 2009 state championship game. Another weapon is O’Neill, who had 16 receiving touchdowns and 592 yards as a junior and picked off nine passes on defense. Russell led the Falcons with 103 tackles and Parks had a team-high nine tackles for loss. St. Albert will have a kicking-game edge on most teams with the return of Meis. He converted seven of eight field goal attempts last season with a long of 47 yards.
Prediction: It’s never easy to start the season with a new quarterback and revamped offensive line, but the Falcons have more than enough experience and talent at other key positions to be considered at least a Top 5 team in the early Class 1A polls.
Iowa: Football news and notes
The University of Iowa picked up its first in-state commitment for the Class of 2011 when Williamsburg lineman Austin Blythe announced his intention to play for the Hawkeyes last week. The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder is a two-time state champion wrestler and considered the top prospect in Iowa for his class. Blythe chose Iowa from a list of offers that included Stanford and fellow Big Ten school Wisconsin.
A new power in Class 1A football might emerge with news from the Waterloo Courier that Dike-New Hartford will combine football programs with Northern University (Cedar Falls) for at least the next two seasons. Dike-New Hartford struggled to a 4-5 record last season but has reached the state championship game three times the last 12 seasons. Last year, NU High went 11-1 and reached the playoffs for just the second time in school history.
Nebraska: State soccer tournament kicks off
Three of last year’s four champions qualified to defend their titles in this week’s boys and girls state soccer tournaments being held at Creighton University in Omaha.
Millard West, which swept both titles last season, is back in both Class A brackets. Nationally ranked Lincoln East (21-0) is the boys favorite while Millard West is the top seed in the girls draw. Kearney, the boys No. 4 seed, and Norfolk, the girls No. 8 seed, hope to make history this weekend. No team from outside the Omaha metro or Lincoln has ever won the Class A boys or girls soccer state tournament since the event began in 1988.
Noticeably absent from the Class B boys bracket is defending champion Columbus Scotus. The Shamrocks were bounced from the postseason in districts by No. 2 seed and undefeated South Sioux City. The boys top seed is Pius X (14-1). Gretna (16-1) holds the No. 1 seed in the girls bracket with defending champion Skutt Catholic (14-3) sitting in the No. 2 position.
Des Moines-based Jamie DeMoney has covered high school sports and recruiting for more than 15 years. He is editor and founder of PrepNation.com. You can reach him at PrepNation@aol.com.