Hopefully the six area schools that played state football championship games got a good rest while they could. It’s almost time to hit the hardwood.
They’ll be joining a relatively new landscape in Northeast and North Central Nebraska this season. Last year’s No. 1 teams in Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family and O’Neill St. Mary’s lost a lot of production and are on the outside looking in to start the year as a result. On top of that, top teams from a year ago have moved around a bit. Howells-Dodge is back in D1 after a cup of coffee in C2. Walthill, a longtime contender in D1, is now D2. Clarkson/Leigh goes from C1 to C2.
When looking at this season from a conference perspective, each within the area will have at least a pair of teams capable of playing in March, but none, and I mean none, will be as deep or competitive as the Mid-State Conference.
On top of the four teams that finished rated last season (O’Neill, Wayne, Norfolk Catholic and Cedar Catholic), Pierce and Boone Central figure to be contenders as well, both for a conference title and maybe more. The talent’s there for all the teams mentioned. Who steps up?
All six will start in this year’s Class C ratings along with Elkhorn Valley and Clarkson/Leigh. North Bend Central, Winnebago and Laurel-Concord-Coleridge also are receiving consideration.
Howells-Dodge takes over the top spot in D1 to start the year, with the rest remaining relatively unchanged from last year’s final ratings. Santee and Stanton are receiving consideration.
The next ratings won’t come until January, so a lot could change between now and then.
Norfolk Catholic had one of its best seasons in a decade last year. The Knights finished third in Class C2 and were the only team to beat its champion, losing four games by a combined 14 points, none by more than four.
A lot of talent is still there, but replacing top scorers Ben Hammond and Brennen Kelley along with Preston Burbach will not be easy. Kade Pieper and Nolan Fennessy bring great size, and the defense stands to remain solid. However, at least one person will need to step up as a guy you can count on for a bucket. Maybe it’s Mason Timmerman? Karter Kerkman? Someone new?
Wayne is in a similar boat. The defending Mid-State Conference tournament champion is coming off a Class C1 quarterfinals appearance. Its defense (which allowed just under 40 points a game) also should remain stout.
Additionally, the Blue Devils bring back three starters. However, the two who left (Tanner Walling and Brandon Bartos) were their leading scorers from a year ago. It helps to have a great interior player like Daniel Judd coming back, but they’ll need to find more offensive firepower. Fortunately, there’s a lot to choose from.
Hartington Cedar Catholic is looking to make it three straight years in the state basketball tournament. Jaxson Bernecker and Carson Arens will lead the team with other athletic players to round out the roster and provide depth.
The Trojans will need to replace the shooting prowess that Tate Thoene brought on what seemed to be a nightly basis. The Trojans often have a lot of athletes to choose from in sports, and I expect that to be the case here. The question is how quickly do they fill those holes.
O’Neill will have as good a shot as anyone to compete with one more year of Landon Classen at its disposal. He’s joined by junior Drew Morrow, who really came into his own as the 2021-22 season went on.
The biggest question I have for the Eagles is the interior. How will they be able to replace the production of Keaton Wattier and Brady Sidak? That will play a big part in whether they advance past a district final or bow out before reaching Lincoln.
Elkhorn Valley held its own in a tough conference and an even tougher subdistrict a year ago. The Falcons had a quite productive season, but it wasn’t enough to earn a berth to a district final. This year, they’ll hope to change that.
The odds will be in their favor to do so with a lot of key pieces back, most notably Carter Werner and Brendyn Ollendick, both of whom were all-Niobrara Valley Conference selections. A fast start will be big for their chances of improving.
Clarkson/Leigh hung around with a lot of tough teams last year, an impressive feat as one of the smallest schools in Class C1. It took the Patriots all the way to a district final, where they fell to top-seeded Wahoo.
This year, the Patriots return to Class C2. Although they’ll be without three of their top four scorers from a year ago, there are still lots of options to work with. Kyle Kasik will surely take on a bigger role, as will Mason Whitmore and Drew Beeson among others.
Pierce took a step back in 2022, finishing at .500 after reaching the state quarterfinals in 2021. The Bluejays do return a strong backcourt in Abram Scholting and Benjamin Brahmer along with the rest of their biggest contributors.
Getting Scholting and Brahmer help on the court will be pivotal for the Bluejays to succeed in the Mid-State Conference, which will somehow be even more competitive than it was last year.
Boone Central went undefeated in district play a year ago and looked to have a chance to really make a run in its subdistrict. However, the Cardinals bowed out in the first round to Pierce and weren't selected for a district final.
Alex Christo and Ryan Drueppel are the two seniors on a team with good size and length that they plan to use. Much of the roster played on a JV team that went 34-2 over the past two years. How does it show at the varsity level in 2022-23?
Howells-Dodge returns to Class D1 after a cup of coffee in C2, where the Jaguars made it all the way to the first round before Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family handed them a loss for the third time that season.
Replacing generational talents like Blake Sindelar, R.J. Bayer and Gavin Nelson will be a tall order but certainly not an impossible one. Outside of those three, everyone’s back including two starters (Lance Brester and Aandy Dominguez) and another player (Aiden Meyer) who saw a lot of court time.
Wynot was perhaps one of the deeper, more athletic teams in the area last year. The Blue Devils didn’t lose to a Class D2 team until the first round of the state tournament, where they let a late lead slip away in a loss to Osceola.
Much of that depth and athleticism will be around this year, including three returning starters in Colin Wieseler, Zach Foxhoven and Chase Schroeder. I can see the Blue Devils being among the last eight standing in Lincoln. It’s really a matter of executing.
Ainsworth will be looking to take the next step after bowing out in their district final a year ago. The Bulldogs also finished fourth in the Southwest Conference tournament, where they’re by far the smallest school.
The team returns its top three scorers, including Elite 8 first-teamer Carter Nelson, but the Bulldogs will need to replace four players who were part of their main rotation. Replacing that depth and building off experience will be crucial to cracking the state tournament.
Elgin Public/Pope John had its best season in program history a year ago, finishing with a winning record and reaching state for the first time. Its run came to an end when it lost its first game in Lincoln to semifinalist Burwell.
The Wolfpack bring back all but one player from last year’s team, although that one was Colton Wright, their top scorer. Still, there are players with a lot of varsity minutes on the roster, which should give first-year coach Matt Euse a lot to work with.
Walthill has high expectations this season and for good reason. The Blujays return every player from last year’s district-finals roster, including a prolific shooter in Tyrese Lovejoy, a model for how the team goes about its business on offense.
The pieces are there for them to make a deep run. The question is how they use it. When Walthill is shooting well from deep, they are unstoppable. That said, there are times when they’ll need to mix it up a bit. That means more touches for whoever starts at center.
Humphrey St. Francis bounced back from a four-game losing streak early last season to win the Goldenrod Conference tournament. The Flyers eventually had their title hopes dashed when they lost to Lincoln Parkview Christian in the first round of subdistricts and in the district final.
The Flyers relied heavily on Tanner Pfeifer a year ago for offensive production. With him now graduated, the question becomes how they can fill that hole. Jaden Kosch does come back for another year, as does Kegan Hackerott. Perhaps an underclassman steps into the fold? Time will tell.
Wausa is a team I’m quite interested to watch this season. The Vikings have one of the most prolific scorers in the area with Jaxon Claussen and bring back all but two players, although one of those who left is Jon Nissen, who led the team in rebounds.
Claussen is one of those guys who can put the team on his back in tight spots, but if they want to improve, they’ll need to give him support from other players. Maybe it’s a starter from last year. Maybe it’s someone new?
Stuart was an efficient team last year but didn’t have the firepower to overcome what was a special St. Mary’s team. It loses two scorers in Ryan Steinhauser and Cameron Sattler, but there are a lot of returning and new pieces to work with.
The key for the Broncos will be getting those new players experience as the season goes on. They’ve put in a lot of time to get better this year. I’m curious to see if they can really get things going offensively to beat the better teams on their schedule.