Nicholl: Potential Breakout teams for 2018

Artwork by Joe Wachter,
By: Conor Nicholl for
Aug 27, 2018

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Since 2014, Kpreps has identified breakout teams from virtually every classification. Of the 29 teams selected from 2014-2017, 22 improved their record the following year, six decreased and one stayed the same. Last season, the eight squads collectively finished 52-30 (63.4 percent) after a combined 34-40 (45.9 percent) the year prior.

Last season’s list had Hoxie, which had a six-win improvement to 12-1 and the Eight-Man, Division I championship, along with 2-1A Ell-Saline (plus-5), 5A Shawnee Heights (plus-4), 4A-I De Soto (plus-3) and 4A-II Concordia (plus-3).

Here are the 2018 Potential Breakout Teams:

8-Man II – Sharon Springs-Wallace County, Centre-Lost Springs

In the west, Wallace County made the playoffs every year from 2006-16. The stretch included a state title in ’07, runner-up in ’13, and then sub-state championship game appearances from ’14-16. Last season, the Wildcats had a brutal pre-district schedule, started 0-3 and finished 3-6. It marked the first time coach Kevin Ayers had missed the playoffs in 18 seasons as head coach.

Wallace County opened with Division I powers St. Francis, Atwood-Rawlins County, and eventual state titlist Hoxie, teams that combined for a 26-4 record. In district play, the Wildcats were again in District 6, easily the classification’s most difficult district. Wallace County played Division II’s toughest schedule, according to Prep Power Index.

In districts, the Wildcats lost to Dighton and Division II runner-up Hodgeman County but permitted just 23.5 points per game in those contests. Those powers combined for 44.3 points per contest when they didn’t face the Wildcats, long known for their defense.

This year, the Wildcats have five starters back, including senior quarterback Luke Johnson along with linemen Josh Daily, Champ King, Corbin Smith and Esteban Rodriguez. Plus, the schedule could be significantly easier.

Wallace County doesn’t face Hoxie or Atwood, and is in a district with Dighton, Quinter, Triplains-Brewster, Tribune-Greeley County and Wheatland-Grinnell. Quinter and Triplains-Brewster were winless in ’17, Wheatland-Grinnell is transitioning back from six-man, and Greeley County was 3-6.

Another strong defensive season, coupled with returning starters and the different schedule could yield a step up in victories.

Out east, Centre-Lost Springs (5-3) transitions down to Division II after a big offensive year. The Cougars averaged 50 points a game, seventh-best in all of eight-man football, and had a 20.9-point per game offensive improvement from ‘16, best in the eight-man ranks.

Ninth-year coach Kelly Steiner returns five offensive and six defensive starters, led by junior quarterback Braxton Smith, senior all-purpose threat Xavier Espinoza and senior lineman Kyle Naerebout. Smith was hurt in three games and still accounted for 19 scores.

Espinoza delivered eight receiving TDs, three pick-sixes and a pair of return scores. Centre has not won more than six games since a 9-1 year in 2010 but could produce a deep November run this fall.

8-Man I – Solomon

In 2012, Osborne started 6-1 under coach Steve Tiernan. Injuries took a toll, and the Bulldogs lost their final two contests and missed the playoffs. The next year, Osborne used just nine players virtually all the time. With multiple stars and little depth, the Bulldogs stayed healthy, went 13-0 and won the Division I state title.

Last fall, Solomon went 5-4. Before the season started, speedy Jake Harmon, the team’s leading rusher as a junior, tore his ACL and missed the season. The Gorillas’ injuries mounted. Quarterback Braden Neilson was banged up after a 3-0 start.

Three offensive linemen helped clean a horse barn, contracted severe poison ivy and missed a game. In Week 8, Solomon had just 15 players healthy, less than half its roster.

Tiernan, now in his 18th season, said he never felt “that helpless” as a coach. Solomon ended the year with big losses versus Logan-Palco and Victoria, part of a challenging District 4 where all but one team finished above .500.

This fall, Solomon, like Osborne in ’13, has little depth, star power and the potential for a big season if it stays healthy. Seven Gorillas are expected to play both ways. Tiernan said summer weights attendance was 81 percent, including 93 among the juniors and seniors. When Tiernan first came to Solomon four years ago, summer weight attendance was at 41 percent.

Neilson returns for his third season at quarterback after he threw for 1,047 yards with a 19/3 TD/INT ratio and led with 735 rushing. Solomon scored and allowed 40.4 points a contest.

Senior running back Logan Kraus is among the weight room warriors and a state qualifier in the 200-meter dash. Kraus was banged up with a knee in ’17. Four starting linemen return, led by senior Jobe Fowles, a four-year starter at guard.

The defense forced eight turnovers and was plus-1 in turnover margin last year, partially because of running different defensive looks to prepare for a key Week 5 district game versus Osborne, and then injuries down the stretch. In ’15, Solomon forced 27 turnovers en route to a final four showing.

The Gorillas’ 2018 schedule likely takes a favorable shift to District 4 where none of the squads finished with a winning record last fall.

1A - Pleasanton

Coach Dustin Johnson, a Pleasanton graduate, has helped his alma-mater improve from 1-8 to 4-5 to 6-4 in his three seasons as head coach. Last year, the Blu-Jays, as an Eight-Man, Division II team, returned to the playoffs for the first time since the ‘00s.

Pleasanton’s Air Raid attack averaged 44.6 points per contest, a 13.5-point per game improvement from ‘16, fifth-best in eight-man.

Pleasanton bumps to Class 1A and returns virtually everyone. The Blu-Jays are a darkhorse on the east side of 1A.

Pleasanton opens with Northeast-Arma and Southeast-Cherokee, two winless teams from 2017. Week 3 versus Jayhawk-Linn and Week 8 at St. Mary’s Colgan represent challenges. Senior Kaden McKee accounted for more than 2,000 yards of offense and 22 scores. Junior Kasen McKee hauled in 16 receiving scores, and lineman Turner Dent delivered 12 sacks. Seven starters return on both sides.

2A – Southeast of Saline, Fredonia

In one of the more unusual seasons of 2017, Southeast of Saline slipped back to 4-5 after four straight 7-3 records. The Trojans finished 1-2 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Southeast of Saline averaged 38.2 points a game, but permitted 31.1, a rare positive margin of victory for a losing team.

The Trojans’ offense produced similar numbers to recent years as they exceeded 30 points a contest for the fifth straight fall and sixth time in seven years. However, the defense had its most points allowed since it permitted 35.1 in ’07. SES was plus-13 in turnover margin and created 22 turnovers.

The defense struggled against multiple teams. Chapman, Beloit, Marion and Hesston all exceeded at least 400 rushing yards. Sacred Heart passed for 382 and had more than 400 yards in total offense. Turnovers were key in the Russell and Marion losses.

Last year, the Trojans had two returning senior defensive starters.

This fall, eight defensive starters return, including five seniors. Defensive lineman Dylan Marks and linebacker Rudy Rodriguez had big years as juniors. The experience should yield an improvement.

The top-five and seven of the top-eight tacklers were non-seniors in ’17. Marks recorded 113 tackles and 13 TFLs, while Rodriguez collected 63 stops.

This season, the schedule changes with no Marion, Chapman and Hesston.

Fredonia went 7-3 in 2016 and slipped back to 3-6 last year. Coach Marc Svaty ran spread and 50 as his base offenses and defenses in ’17.

This fall, the Yellowjackets will use the hybrid bone on offense and 4-3 on defense. Fredonia forced just seven turnovers last year, a big focus for 2018. The Yellowjackets also have Labette County and Caney Valley off the schedule, teams Fredonia lost by a combined 118-20 in ’17.

Fredonia had eight offensive and nine defensive starters returning, Senior running back/linebacker Lorenzo Celani is one of the team’s top players.

3A - Halstead

After a 31-6 cumulative record from ’14-16, Halstead dropped back to 4-6 but still captured a district title.

The Dragons finished with a strong offense with 37.6 points per contest and allowed 30.5, according to Prep Power Index. The Dragons took multiple close losses with defeats by two twice and nine twice and had no close victories.

Halstead returns a bevy of talented players and has pushed for a top-10 preseason ranking in revamped 3A. The Dragons’ veer option had 251 rushing yards per game and returns 78 percent of its rushing yards, along with 68 percent of its receptions.

Defensively, the Dragons have the top-six players in TFLs return, paced by senior Jon Fulghum (13.5 TFLs). Kaden Kraus led the team with 135 tackles, but will miss his junior season due to an injury. Six other top tacklers return to the Dragon defense.

The Dragons have excellent special teams with high-profile returner Aric Propst and long snapper David Schulte. Propst led the state with 40.5 kickoff yards per return, along with two kickoff return TDs. Schulte has had no bad snaps in two years, according to coach Grider.

4A - Abilene

In 2016, Abilene finished 7-3. The Cowboys tallied 309 yards a game with 28.3 points per contest. Defensively, Abilene allowed 273 yards a contest, according to NCKL statistician Kevin Johnson. The Cowboys committed seven turnovers (with just three fumbles lost) and was plus-15 in turnover margin.

Last year, the turnover margin flipped.

Abilene went 2-7. The Cowboys again had 309 yards a contest with 16.8 points per contest. Abilene had 23 turnovers, including 13 fumbles lost. The Cowboys finished minus-13 in turnover margin.

This year, Abilene should have an improved turnover margin after its fewest wins since 2012. The Cowboys return many of its top players. Senior James Mayden led Abilene in rushing with 94 carries for 541 yards and three TDs, and senior Dakota Whiteley was the second-leading rusher with 363 yards.

Abilene’s top-two receivers are back, led by Mayden (17 catches, 313 yards and one TD). Cowboy senior Danny Espinoza returns after three INTs, part of eight starters back on both sides.

Junior offensive lineman Kade Funston earned first team all-league.

5A – Emporia

The Spartans have posted five straight sub-.500 seasons, including records of 4-5, 4-6, and 4-5 the last three falls.

The Spartans have multiple reasons for an improvement this fall. In ’16, Emporia averaged just 14.3 points per contest and permitted 30.4, both worst for the program in last five years.

Last season, the Spartans improved to 24.4 points per game and 26.4 allowed.

As well, Emporia upped its rushing attack from 165 yards a game and 3.9 yards per carry to 234 rushing yards a contest and 5.4 yards a carry – best in four years.

This season, Emporia returns seven offensive and six defensive starters and should again post big offensive numbers.

Quarterback Jace Stewart, leading rusher Gabe Galindo and top receiver Spencer Stewart return.

The line features senior Myles Livingston and Hayden Pauls, both Division I prospects. Pauls, a junior, has seen his stock rocket with multiple Division I offers.

The passing game should improve. In the last four years, Emporia quarterbacks have had more interceptions than touchdowns in three seasons.

Last year, Stewart amassed nearly  1,300 yards of total offense, but Emporia averaged just six yards per pass attempt with a 5/11 TD/INT ratio. Stewart has played significantly the last two falls and could produce an improvement in 2018.

Fifth-year coach Corby Milleson could lead the Spartans to its best season since a 9-2 mark in 2012 under then-coach Dustin Delaney and standout Jerel Morrow, who went on to become an exceptional special teams player at Oklahoma State.

6A – Gardner-Edgerton, Shawnee Mission West

Gardner-Edgerton and Shawnee Mission West, both 0-9, have multiple reasons for an upswing in 2018.

Ryan Cornelsen took over Gardner-Edgerton after successful stints at La Crosse, Hays High and Hutchinson. Cornelsen has never had a losing season. In his career – including one season as an assistant at WaKeeney-Trego in 2002 – Cornelsen has continually had big improvements in his first or second year.

In ’02, Trego doubled its win total and finished 10-2. Then, at La Crosse, the Leopards twice achieved four-win improvements in his six-year tenure.

At Hays High, Cornelsen had a three-win improvement in his first fall. At Hutchinson, Cornelsen enjoyed another three-victory bump with the Salthawks and paced the powerhouse to a state runner-up.

The Trailblazers have Mark Simoneau, former Smith Center, Kansas State standout who played in the NFL, now running the weight room. Linebacker Darin Robertson, who paced 6A champion Blue Valley North with 93 tackles in 2017, transferred to the Trailblazers. Gardner-Edgerton went 0-5 in games decided by 14 points or fewer. Cornelsen is 17-8 in one-score contests since ’09.

Both of the quarterbacks return for a team that switches from the Eastern Kansas League, the state’s best conference, to the more manageable Sunflower League. Leading rusher Baylor Maxwell is back, along with leading tackler Jonah May.

Shawnee Mission West had a rare down season under longtime coach Tim Callaghan, who enters his 16th year with a 103-54 mark.

It marked the school’s first winless fall since opening year in 1962, according to the Sunflower Football News Blog. The finish represented a six-win decrease from ’06 and just the second losing record in the last decade.

SM West played two sophomores at quarterback in ’17 and combined for 487 passing yards with 49 percent completion at a 4/8 TD/INT ratio. The Vikings should improve on 18 turnovers and a minus-9 in turnover margin. Senior Sebastian Garcia, easily the leading tackler with 81 stops, is back.

The Vikings went 0-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Senior Dante Smith Posey headlines all five returning starters on the line from an offense that averaged just 10.6 points per contest, third-lowest in 6A.

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