Nicholl: Potential Breakout teams for 2015

Artwork by Joe Wachter,
By: Conor Nicholl for
Aug 31, 2015

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It’s always enjoyable to watch what teams make massive improvements and surprise others with a big one-year jump. Last season, I pinpointed five teams on the western half of the state that I believed would improve.

Here is their 2013 to 2014 difference:

8-man II: Otis-Bison: 3-6 to 4-5

8-man I: Quinter: 2-7 to 4-5

2-1A: Ellis: 3-6 to 4-5

3A: Norton: 5-4 to 10-1

4A-II: Concordia: 2-7 to 8-3

See 2014 Potential Breakout Teams

Here are this year’s picks for breakout teams on the western half of the state:

8-man II: Wheatland-Grinnell Thunderhawks

Two years ago, Wheatland-Grinnell couldn’t finish its schedule due to lack of numbers and went winless. Last season, the Thunderhawks improved to 2-7. This fall, Wheatland-Grinnell returns seven starters on both sides of the ball, graduating only all-state wide receiver Dominic Zimmerman. W-G’s district includes Wallace County, preseason No. 2 in 8-man II, but the Thunderhawks have a great chance to earn the runner-up spot ahead of contenders Hoxie and Triplains-Brewster.

Wheatland-Grinnell gets a solid Week 1 home test against Chase, 9-1 in 2014, but took heavy graduation losses. Win Friday and W-G should be 4-0 heading into a home game with Hoxie in Week 5 and at Wallace County in Week 6.

W-G started freshman Chandler Ostmeyer at quarterback last fall and committed 22 turnovers with a minus-1 turnover margin (TO margin normally fluctuates greatly from year to year). Those numbers should greatly improve and Ostmeyer should build on last year when he threw for 953 yards with an 11/12 TD/INT ratio. W-G has not reached the playoffs since 2002.

8-man I: Wakefield Bombers

The only preseason ranked team of this group, Wakefield has had the misfortune of playing in the same district as Hanover and Osborne last season.

The Bombers were a top-10 team in Eight-Man, Division I, but a blowout loss to Hanover and an overtime defeat to Osborne kept Wakefield from making the playoffs at 7-2. Running back Zack Melius must stay healthy after he set single game eight-man records for TDs and points and collected 38 offensive TDs. Wakefield hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006 but has an excellent shot to run the table in the regular season and play deep into November with seven offensive and six defensive starters back.

2-1A: Smith Center Redmen

Smith Center had an unfamiliar position last fall when it finished 5-4 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Smith Center had just two players with experience back in 2014 and returns six offensive and five defensive starters. Smith Center played the No. 3 hardest strength of the schedule in 2-1A and averaged 20 points per game, while allowing 20.9. In 2013, Smith Center finished 8-3 and had an average margin of 37-13 against the No. 1 SOS in 2-1A.

The Redmen will always be sound defensively with veteran coordinator Brock Hutchinson. The offense should take big strides this year with a much more experienced line, senior Cale Rogers at running back and Kaden Meitler expected to take over under center. Smith Center still has to navigate through Oakley, Norton and La Crosse in non-district, and Phillipsburg and Ell-Saline in district play, but the Redmen should return to the playoffs. Smith Center greatly outgained Ell-Saline, but lost 14-13 last fall. Norton, Ell-Saline, La Crosse and Phillipsburg will all be at home this season; Smith Center was 4-0 at home in ’14.

3A: Beloit Trojans

Beloit took a big step back from a runner-up showing in 2013 and finished 6-4 last season. The Trojans outscored teams 41-19 per game and lost twice to Minneapolis (27-26, 59-34), against Norton in district (34-16) and versus Concordia (26-0) in the season opener.

The Trojans, long known for its high-octane, run-heavy attack, return two 1,000-yard backs in Jace Adams and Colson Reames. Beloit had a major issue with turnovers in 2014, especially fumbling. The Trojans finished minus-7 in turnover margin, including minus-11 in the four losses. In each loss, Beloit was at least minus-2 in turnover margin despite having the edge in yardage and/or plays.

Against Concordia, Beloit didn’t score despite a 244-241 edge in yards; the difference came with seven turnovers. Versus Norton, the Bluejays had a 274-236 yardage edge, but Beloit had a 70-36 advantage in plays. In the 27-26 loss to Minneapolis during the regular season, Beloit outgained the Lions 392-275.

In the playoffs, Minneapolis took advantage of some big plays, including a TD off an INT and had a 527-456 edge in yards. But the Trojans held a 74-44 edge in plays.

Overall, Beloit had 18 fumbles, losing 15. In the previous four years, Beloit had 15, four, 10 and 13 total fumbles.

Beloit was Kansas’ lone 11-man team to score more than 400 points and not win at least seven games. Expect the turnovers and fumbling to improve this season, the offense to continue to put up numbers – and Beloit to vault back up the win column.

4A-II: Larned Indians

Virtually Larned’s entire season was close, low-scoring ball games, and the Indians dropped back from 7-3 and its first playoff berth since 1985 to a 4-5 year last fall. Larned defeated rival Hoisington 21-20 in double overtime to start the season (the Cardinals went 9-2) and led La Crosse until the final seconds in a 14-7 loss the following week.

Larned eventually went 3-4 in games decided by one score or fewer. The Indians had trouble closing out contests, but should take a significant step forward in 2015. The Indians have plenty of size up front and return quarterback Evan Skelton, running back Landon Erway and wide receiver Isiah Perez, all seniors. Larned has 13 players over 200 pounds, and six players over 240. Erway has started for three years on defense.

Coach A.B. Stokes has done a great job of turning around the long struggling program, and Larned has an excellent shot to return to the postseason in 2015.  

4A-I: Andover Central Jaguars

The Jaguars have tremendous offensive skill players returning with quarterback Payton Huslig, running back Jordan Birch and wide receiver Darraja Parnell from a 6-5 team that averaged 33.5 points per contest. Andover Central improved from 3-6 to 6-5 from 2013 to ’14. This season could yield the Jags’ best year since an 8-4, 8-2 and 9-2 stretch from 2006-08.

Andover Central was great on the margins last season: plus-9 in turnover margin, five defensive/special teams scores, but still allowed 28.8 points per contest and did take a surprising double overtime loss to Goddard Eisenhower, an eventual 2-7 team.

Since 2006, it marked the worst scoring defense for the Jags. Defensively, Parnell returns off an all-state season and senior Thomas Graham was one of Kansas’ leading tacklers.

Andover Central went 2-2 in games decided by one score or fewer, but lost for the third straight year to rival Andover. In those games, AC has lost by a combined 11 points. The offense will likely be among the best in 4A-I and any defensive improvement would lift Jags into the upper echelon of the classification. A Week 2 victory against Andover could give the Jags a 3-0 mark ending into a key Week 4 contest at Maize South.

5A: Liberal Redskins

Liberal has not been over .500 since a 6-4 season in 2005, but the Redskins have the personnel to make the jump after a 5-5 year in 2014. Eight offensive and seven defensive starters return, including quarterback Jared Hasik (824 passing, 10/2 TD/INT). Plus, Liberal will again be in a very manageable Class 5A district with Goddard, Goddard Eisenhower and Arkansas City; the Redskins went 3-0 in district last season before losing to Maize South in the first round of the playoffs.

Liberal has generally been built around offense the last few years, but Liberal allowed 31.9 points per game in 2014. In 2013, Liberal was also 5-5, but allowed 40.9 points per contest. Also, with no dominant WAC team, the Redskins (0-4 in league play in ’14), should win at least one contest and could be a darkhorse for the league title.

6A: Garden City Buffaloes

Garden City was due for a dropoff after an 8-4 season with all-state quarterback Greyson Tempel in 2013. The Buffs went 4-5 last season and went minus-2 in turnover margin, the only losing season in Brian Hill’s first five years.

The previous two seasons, Garden City was plus-7 and plus-5 in turnover margin. The Buffs return many of its top players, save all-state wide receiver Caleb Tramp. Nalen Rincones has led the team in tackles each of the last two years with 184 stops and 24.5 TFLs combined. The defense allowed 29.6 points per game, similar to the last two years of 27.0 and 26.6.

Offensively, GC took a tumble from 2013 to ’14, going from 34.2 points per contest to 27. However, the Buffs could improve significantly with junior Jesse Nunez returning at quarterback (704 passing) and senior running back Jared Koster (1,028 rushing). The line has several veterans. As well, Garden City should likely receive more from the return game than 2014.

In 2013, Garden City fielded 20 punts (including fair catches) for 142 yards. It returned 37 kickoffs for an average of 15.5 yards. The Buffs had two defensive/special teams scores.

Last season, GC received virtually nothing in the punt return. On 46 punts (including fair catches), the Buffs netted just 53 return yards, which didn’t help the offense. GC averaged 13.5 yards on kickoffs with no defensive/special teams scores. The team never had a return over 33 yards.

Garden City has the offensive talent to win the WAC and get to the playoffs. Any special teams improvement and a defensive showing similar to the last three years should help the Buffs get there.



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