Potential breakout teams & players in the west

Otis-Bison sophomore quarterback Kade Urban (Everett Royer, ksportsimages.com)
By: Conor Nicholl for Kpreps.com
Sep 2, 2014

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In recent history, the west, especially in the smaller classifications, is known for at least one team making a big improvement from the previous fall and players stepping up and performing at a much higher level than their past seasons.

Some of the examples include:

Quinter moved from 3-6 to 10-1 from ’07 to ’08 and won the state title in 2009.

Otis-Bison went from 2-7 in 2008 to 10-1 in 2009 and state runner-up in 2010.

Plainville finished 3-6 in 2010, went 10-2 and a sub-state berth in 2011.

Beloit/St. John’s-Tipton was 2-7 in 2011, but 8-2 and 11-1 the last two seasons.

The players’ list includes Cheylin running back Jeremiah White and current La Crosse senior Andrew Jay. White had had 139 yards as a junior and broke the 2,000-yard mark as a senior in 2011. Jay, one of the state’s best all-around threats, had 130 all-purpose yards as a sophomore, but 1,986 last fall.

Here are five picks (one from each of the five smallest classifications) for breakout teams and players on non-ranked squads entering 2014:

1. Eight-Man, Division II: Otis-Bison

Eight-Man Division II, District 7 is receiving plenty of attention for its big three of Thunder Ridge, Victoria and Beloit/St. John’s-Tipton ranked 1-2-3, respectively, in KPreps.com’s preseason poll. The rest of the district finished with winning records last season, except for Otis-Bison, which went 3-6.

The Cougars were expected to drop off after a combined 40-6 record the previous four years, but Otis-Bison narrowly missed the playoffs after a 0-6 start. The Cougars went through multiple injuries early, made a midseason quarterback change, and finished with three straight victories.

This year, Otis-Bison brings back plenty of experience, including senior lineman Kade Hagans and sophomore quarterback Kade Urban.

“People are going to sleep on them, and they are going to be in trouble,” Victoria coach Doug Oberle said.

Even with the sub-.500 record, Otis-Bison still averaged 29 points per contest. The issues came on defense (41.3 points allowed per game), a number that should improve under 10th-year coach Travis Starr.

Urban went 12 of 30 for 165 yards passing and had a 1/1 TD/INT ratio. Urban (225 rushing) and fellow freshman Brad Lightfoot (218 rushing) combined for 80 carries for 443 yards and eight TDs.

Both ranked in the top-9 among eight-man freshmen in rushing yards, while Urban finished sixth in total yards.

Hayden Meier is back as a junior after he led the team with 164 receiving yards.

Plus, Otis-Bison’s district features Thunder Ridge in a home game, at Natoma, then home against versus BSJT and Northern Valley, and then at rival Victoria to finish the year. The home field advantage has historically helped Otis-Bison, which has four home losses in the last five seasons, including 2-2 last year.

On paper, the Cougars are behind the big three, but Otis-Bison should increase their win total, and if there’s a team to pull an upset in District 7, it’s likely the Cougars.

2. Eight-Man, Division I: Jason Werth and Brett Crist, Quinter

The Bulldogs have historically had multiple three- and four-year starters since it moved to eight-man, a change that’s helped the program to 10-1, 12-1, 6-3, 6-4 marks and a 3-3 start in 2012. Since then, Quinter has slumped to 2-10, including 2-7 last year.

But in a competitive Eight-Man Division I, District 8, Werth and Crist, both entering as four-year starters, could bring the Bulldogs back to the playoffs. Werth played in just six games in 2013 because of injury, but finished with 66 tackles and two fumble recoveries. He has 252 tackles (10.1 per game) with six turnovers created in his career.

Crist, also a standout basketball player who averaged 18 points a game last winter, missed one game in 2013 and led the Bulldogs with 19 catches for 346 yards and five scores. The 6-2, 200-pound Werth is expected to start at center and linebacker and the 6-2, 180-pound Crist will pose matchup problems for defenses.

3.  Class 2-1A: Brendon Brenner and Jared Pfeifer, Ellis.

Pfeifer and Brenner are each more well-known for another sport, but they could significantly impact Class 2-1A, District 7. After nine straight playoff berths, Ellis narrowly missed the postseason in 2012 before it fell to 3-6 in ’13, its fewest wins since 2003. Pfeifer, a two-time state track champion, is arguably the fastest player in the eight-year Butch Hayes era. He has played in just 10 games the last two years because of injury, but is fine this fall.

“His ankle is the one that has been giving him issues during the last couple of seasons, but he is healthy and it’s held up nice,” Hayes said.

Brenner averaged 20 points a game in basketball as a sophomore, and caught 10 passes for 158 yards and two scores. The 6-foot-6 Brenner, Pfeifer and senior running back Sean Lee should lead Ellis’ offense.

The Railers have struggled the last several years with a first-month slate against Mid-Continent League brethren, but should open 3-1, possibly 4-0, this fall against a different schedule. That, coupled with some breakout performances, could lead Ellis to a big season.

4. Class 3A: Norton Bluejays and Jordan Dole

Norton has consistently rode a strong defense, often one talented running back, and solid – but usually not spectacular – quarterback play to the playoffs in recent years. Last season, Norton had plenty of issues at quarterback and started 0-2 before finishing 5-2.

Jordan Dole, a sophomore in 2013, struggled early, but played much better in the second half. In the last six games, he rushed 60 times for 448 yards and seven scores. He averaged less than one yard a carry in his first three contests.

Dole opened 1 of 6 for 11 yards in the first two games, but – other than a poor Week 8 showing against powerhouse Beloit – was 24 of 50 for 349 yards the rest of the season.

Dole fumbled 15 times, but five apiece came against Plainville in Week 3 and Beloit in Week 8. That helped Norton finish an uncharacteristic minus-13 in turnover margin.

“Things that have hurt us all year, that’s turnovers and penalties,” Norton coach Lucas Melvin said after last fall ended.

The Bluejays have a tough first five games, but should qualify for playoffs out of Class 3A, District 14. Expect Dole to build off the second half of 2013 and post a strong year.

5. Class 4A, Division II: Concordia Panthers

Coach Tim Lambert finished 2-8 in 2009, his first season at Concordia after 16 years at St. Francis. Then, he collected eight wins in each of the next three seasons before a 2-7 mark last fall. Concordia lost 20-14 to Abilene in Week 4, and 27-21 to Chapman in Week 6 for a pair of close losses. The Panthers collectively had 39 turnovers in Lambert’s first four seasons, but had 21 last fall and finished minus-5 in turnover margin.

In Lambert’s first four years, Concordia was minus-4, plus-17, plus-23 and plus-6 in turnover margin. This season, expect the turnovers to decrease, senior running back Drake Hake (797 rushing yards in ‘13) to have a big fall, and Concordia to get back over .500 and return to the playoffs.

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