It was difficult to get a good read on the kind of football team that Creighton would have this season.
In a way, it seemed like an eternity ago when the Bulldogs were the undefeated Class D1 state champions celebrating on the chilled Memorial Stadium turf.
A 6-4 season followed, including a second-round playoff exit at the hands of eventual state champion Osceola/High Plains. Moreover, the team lost 12 seniors to graduation from that team, including three-year starter Brayden Zimmerer at quarterback.
As if that was not enough change, Creighton dropped to Class D2 this season with its NSAA enrollment down to just 33. That drop in classification made sense: There are just 17 Bulldogs on the roster this season, including only one freshman.
So, what exactly did third-year coach Zac Kliment expect out of his team this season?
“As always, we're expecting to get the most out of our kids and be a really competitive team again,” he said. “We knew, with our schedule, we would have some pretty tough games to start the year, and our kids played really well and answered that call.”
Creighton opened with a nine-point win over Pender and survived a high-scoring 62-40 affair at Plainview three weeks ago. In the past two weeks, the Bulldogs put together dominating performances against Boyd County and Niobrara/Verdigre to begin Class D2 District 4 play. In between, Creighton joined the ratings for the first time this season. This week, the Bulldogs repeat at No. 9 after the midpoint of the regular season.
“They've been playing pretty lights-out recently,” Kliment said.
The good news is that Creighton is just one win away from matching last year’s total. However, there are a couple of big-time contests still on the schedule.
That starts this week when the Bulldogs host O’Neill St. Mary’s in a battle of undefeated teams. Friday’s tilt is an afternoon matinee, scheduled for 2:30 p.m. at Bill Harder Field. With both teams entering 5-0 and St. Mary’s 1-0 in district play, Friday’s game could go a long way toward determining the District 4 champion.
Of course, Creighton’s final regular-season opponent might have something to say about that.
After Friday’s game, Creighton visits Summerland in nondistrict play before a trip to perennial eight-man power Bloomfield to end the regular season. The Bees started the year 2-2, but Bloomfield began district play with a 42-0 victory against Boyd County.
“I think those early tough ones really prepared us and showed us who we had on offense and defense with some new guys playing, and they really responded well,” Kliment said. “We've got to keep playing as hard as we have to finish out the season well.”
As noted previously, graduation has hit the Bulldogs hard in the past two years. After the state championship season, Bryce Zimmerer, the Daily News’ Elite Eight captain graduated, along with a fellow Elite Eight honoree in lineman Travis Tyler. A year ago, it was three-year starting quarterback Brayden Zimmerer among the departing seniors.
“We knew that, with graduating 12 senior boys and there were only four freshman boys coming in total ... and we only had one (freshman) who was interested in football coming up, so we did know that the numbers were going to drop down,” Kliment said.
That opened the door for players such as seniors Sam Vortherms, R.J. Wilmes and Chase Pavlik, juniors Brody Eggers and Easton Pavlik, and sophomore Kale Fulton, among others. In particular, Vortherms backed up for Brayden Zimmerer the past three years at quarterback.
“I think it was a great benefit for a lot of those guys that they were … young on the championship team,” Kliment said. “They got to see how a championship season is put together, the work that goes into it. They understand the expectations and the work that they'll put in. When it's your turn, you want to answer the call.”
Still, that small roster size — barely enough to scrimmage 8-on-8 — has been an adjustment for the program.
“My first two years as head coach here, we had more than 30,” Kliment said. “We just don't have necessarily the same depth that we had in the past. We still have the kids with the talent, but we're just a little bit more limited in our practices.
“But one of the benefits of having only 17 is that all of the kids are very active and staying engaged in the practices. They're getting a lot more out of it, as compared with standing around off to the side not getting as many reps.”
The 16 teams in last week’s ratings combined to go 12-1 last week. Three of them — Class C No. 2 Pierce, Class D No. 1 Wakefield, and No. 6 Stanton — had their scheduled games canceled because of their opponents having COVID-19 concerns.
Wakefield and Stanton both reached out to schools in pursuit of a replacement game but were unable to get one scheduled. Pierce coach Mark Brahmer simply said “no replacement game for us” in an email last week.
The only loss was No. 5 Battle Creek falling 31-12 to No. 3 Wayne in district play.
If it’s not broken — or, at least not broken for this week, anyway — there’s no real reason to fix or adjust anything. Of course, give it a week and we might have to start from scratch again, like what has happened in Class D a couple of times already.