By CONOR NICHOLL
Eight-Man, Division II Preview. All game-by-game records and scoring offense/defense rankings from KPreps.com database and Conor Nicholl research. All roster numbers from MaxPreps, unless otherwise noted.
Eight-Man, Division II: Numbers to Know
81 – combined winning percentage of Hanover and Victoria from 2008-21. Those two are the favorites to meet for the championship. They have not faced each other in 13 years.
32 – current consecutive district wins by Coldwater-South Central
22 – Roster numbers tend to fluctuate at Division II. From ’15-20, 24 Division II squads have made a state semifinal. Those teams have averaged 22 players on their roster. Eight of the 24 have been under 20.
22 -Number of career interceptions for Wheatland-Grinnell junior Jett Vincent. The state record is set 32, set by St. John’s Travis Neidig from ’04-07 in 11-man football. The eight-man mark is 31 by Bennington’s Gunner Boss from ’85-88.
3280 – Number of career passing yards for Wheatland-Grinnell senior quarterback Trey Vincent. A starter since his freshman year, Vincent is part of an elite veteran group of returning signal callers.
4 – Number of one-score games played by Thunder Ridge in 2020, most in Division II.
Great quarterbacks and skill players across the board – and different levels of depth. Will powers Hanover and Victoria meet for the second time in school history and first since 2008 state finale?
Victoria coach Doug Oberle had a possible problem when he checked out equipment this spring.
“I was worried about helmets for awhile,” Oberle said.
The tradition-laden Knights almost didn’t have enough. During the next several months, a couple of freshmen elected not to play, which helped curb the potential issue. Still, Victoria started the beginning of the summer around 28-29 players, a bigger roster than some Class 1A schools. As of early August, Oberle believed Victoria was going to be in the 27-player range. Six to seven players are expected to receive carries.
That’s still a high number for Victoria, which has four eight-man state championships since ’06. Oberle is 3-1 in state titles as a head coach and stands at 132-34 in his career. Last season, Victoria went back down from Eight-Man, Division I to Division II. All of Victoria’s eight-man state championships, including the most recent in ’14-15, have come at Division II. The ’15 squad finished 12-0. That team was a very deep roster with more than 25 Knights.
Oberle sees similarities between this group and those squads.
“I really thought going into the year this could be one of the teams that we have had in the past where I really feel like we are pretty deep,” he said. “There’s a few holes, a few places where we are still looking.”
Last season, Hanover finished 11-0 and defeated St. Francis for the state championship game, the sixth under Wildcat coach Matt Heuer. He is tied for the all-time lead for eight-man championships with former Hanston coach Jerry Slaton. This year, Hanover, long known for its depth, and Victoria headline the classification.
The teams have only met once when Hanover defeated Victoria, 46-14, in the Division II championship game in ’08. That marked Heuer’s first title.
From ’08-20, Hanover is 139-17, and Victoria is 111-31. In that stretch, Victoria is 86-18 at the Division II and 25-13 in Division I.
“If you go Division II, you are going to find three to four teams I think on each side of the state that you know are going to be there,” Oberle said. “When you go Division I, I think that number expands.”
All six of Hanover championships have come in Division II. Hanover has had rosters of at least 24 players from ’15-19 before 20 last fall.
Behind Hanover and Victoria comes a group that includes Thunder Ridge, Osborne, Axtell, Wheatland-Grinnell, Coldwater-South Central, Norwich, Bucklin and Central Plains.
Axtell, W-G and South Central all have arguably the top player at their respective position in the classification. Axtell has QB Isaac Detweiler, W-G has DB Jett Vincent and SC with LB Owen Herd. Those three teams also report a roster of 19 players or fewer.
“It’s crazy when you start thinking about 10 or 12 kids in a school making a difference in terms of Division I versus Division II,” Oberle said.
This year, Hanover is paced by its veteran senior duo of Emmitt Jueneman and Keagan Dimler. Jueneman enjoyed a big state title performance. He overall finished with 22 catches for 418 yards and a team-best nine TDs. Jueneman earned SIK 1A, Division II Player of the Year in basketball and has elite athleticism with a 40-inch vertical.
Dimler finished with nine offensive touchdowns on 36 touches. Hanover averaged a classification-best 55.3 points a game and won every contest by at least 20 points. Heuer is 161-27 in 16 seasons at his alma mater, including 6-3 in state championship games.
The offense “can be overwhelming at first,” Jueneman told me after state last year. “Like last year, we had a bunch of first-time players, so it was a little bit overwhelming our first couple games. And once you start getting the routine of it, you start to understand it more and more. So it starts to get easier as you get more experienced.”
Victoria had won 35 straight Division II contests before a 2020 state semifinal loss to St. Francis completed an 11-1 season. The Knights return senior quarterback Grant Schroenrock, who first started in a Week 9 playoff win his freshman year. Schoenrock is one of many standout Division II quarterbacks back.
Last year, Schoenrock had 1,011 rushing yards, 794 passing and 36 offensive touchdowns. Defensively, Schoenrock delivered 110 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and a sack. The 5-foot-11, 181-pound Schoenrock has made the summer collegiate camp rounds.
The classification’s major question is: Can a team, likely with an elite signal caller but less depth, defeat the deeper Wildcats or Knights?
“We return a lot,” Thunder Ridge coach Joel Struckhoff said. “Victoria returns a lot. …Hanover’s always in there, but it looks like this year, that (Division II), it’s not as deep as usual. And we are looking to hopefully be in that push when it comes late season. And I think there’s several teams that will be right there in play for things.”
Hanover remains East favorite with rival Axtell
Hanover’s stiffest competition on the East is expected to come from rival Axtell. The Eagles list just 16 players and two seniors. However, Axtell had only 15 players in ’19. That fall, the Eagles defeated Hanover twice and was the Division II state runner-up. Those mark Hanover’s lone losses in the last five years.
Axtell averaged 43.7 points a game with Detweiler. He completed 141 of 223 passes for 1,970 yards with 31 scores against five interceptions. He paced the Eagles in rushing with 138 carries for 484 yards and 16 scores.
Axtell plays host to Wheatland-Grinnell in Week 1 in a key top-10 matchup. Axtell (7-3 in ’20), Hanover and Frankfort (7-2) are all in District 3.
District 1 has Colony-Crest (10-1 with big graduation losses) and Waverly. Waverly quarterback Damian Foster recorded 1,600 yards of total offense.
District 2 features Lebo (10-1 with significant graduation) and Hartford, 6-4 in ’20 and another breakout candidate. Hartford has Shayden Shull, one of Kansas’ top defensive backs and running backs with 1,547 rushing yards. D2 also has possible surprise team Marais des Cygnes Valley. MdCV returns dual threat QB Cole Lacey, who accounted for 34 offensive scores.
District 4 with returning QBs and balance; BSJT looks to continue winning record streak; Caldwell looks to keep high-octane offense in D6
District 4 should be highly entertaining between Beloit/St. John’s-Tipton (7-3), Thunder Ridge (5-4), Downs-Lakeside (5-4) and Osborne (4-5). BSJT won the district with a 5-1 record and has nine straight winning seasons. Thunder Ridge opens the fall in the top-five.
The group returns great skill players in Pike Valley’s QB Keaton Reeves (26 touchdowns), Thunder Ridge QB Dylan Bice, Osborne RB Mason Schurr, Lakeside’s QB/WR senior combination of Kylan Cunningham and Jace Schoen. In eight games, Schurr had 143 carries for 1,057 yards and 15 TDs.
Bice is an elite talent at 6-3, 190. Thunder Ridge coach Joel Struckhoff said Bice looks like a prototypical quarterback.
“A rare, rare arm talent that you don’t see often in eight-man football,” Struckhoff said. “He can sit there and throw the ball 60 yards without even moving. I mean, he’s just got surreal arm talent. One of the best I’ve seen. I know he’s my guy, but I have got to give props when props are due.”
Cunningham passed for 1,522 yards with 21 scores against four interceptions. He rushed 61 times for 619 yards and 17 scores. Schoen recorded 52 catches for 943 yards. Lakeside was ninth in classification scoring with 44.2 points a game.
Victoria and rival Central Plains (6-2) are in District 5. CP ranked in the top-eight in offense and defense in ’20. Victoria is 6-4 versus the Oilers since ’11.
In 2020, District 6 had four teams with 4-2 district records: Caldwell (8-3), South Barber (5-4), Norwich (4-5) and Peabody-Burns (5-4). Three of those teams return a highly productive quarterback: Caldwell junior Keiondre Smith, South Barber’s Gatlin Jewell and Norwich sophomore Tray Schroeder.
Smith recorded 1,936 offensive yards and Schroeder 1,641 last fall.
Caldwell has five straight winning seasons, though has not made it past the quarterfinals since ’93. Coach Sean Blosser is 64-37 with the Bluejays, a program consistently known for big offense. From ’14-20, Caldwell has averaged 39.8, 42.2, 56.2, 47.6, 41.1, 34.5 and 40 points a game.
For South Barber, Jewell has Kansas State interest and posted 4.5 in the 40-yard dash. He has an offer from Division II Southwest Oklahoma State University. Jewell is the top Division II recruit in the Class of 2022. Jewell threw for 815 yards, rushed for 1,239 and accounted for 32 offensive scores.
Schroeder broke onto the scene last fall. Norwich lost at Victoria in the playoffs. In track, Schroeder helped Norwich win the Class 1A state title in 400 relay. Norwich has a 13-player roster.
“For a freshman to have that amount of poise, I was really impressed,” Oberle said. “You could tell he was a confident kid. The running ability, scrambled around, threw the ball well. They’re a scary little team. They had a couple of tight ends that were big, and I know are coming back.”
Far West districts include South Central’s 32-game district winning streaks; plenty of playmakers back
District 7 is paced by South Central (7-3, 5-0 in district play). Bucklin (6-4) features outstanding hybrid player Scott Price, and Minneola (4-5) returns nearly all its key players. SC has won 32 consecutive district games. The Timberwolves are 5-0 in district in each of the last six years. Last season, SC was seventh in scoring defense.
SC 6-foot-2, 203-pound senior Owen Herd has 197 tackles, 48.5 TFLs, three forced fumbles and three blocked punts in his career.
Price paced Bucklin with 1,577 all-purpose yards, 972 rushing yards, 23 offensive scores and 115 tackles, all team-bests. Senior quarterback Nathan Bowman returns after he passed for 851 yards with 14 scores against five interceptions.
Minneola returns all of its offensive yards and 93 percent of its tackles. Sophomore Eli Lang passed for 612 yards, rushed for 917 and delivered 23 offensive TDs.
District 8 has Wheatland-Grinnell (8-3), its Gove County rival Quinter (3-4), Triplains-Brewster (5-4) and two-time defending state runner-up St. Francis (11-1). All four teams return its established quarterback.
SF has a new coach and one senior. Junior Ben Busse returns at quarterback. W-G has its own great quarterback with senior Trey Vincent, who has started all four years. Quinter features senior quarterback Jaden Boone and should have its best season in at least a decade.
Vincent passed for 1,739 yards with 24 scores against 12 interceptions. Senior running back Isaac Mendez has 219 rushes for 1,607 yards and 29 TDs. His brother, Jett, has 44 receptions for 809 yards and 15 scores. Jett has 22 career interceptions and could break the eight-man career record for interceptions.
W-G, which had the best season in school history in ’20, graduated Trevor Zarybnicky, Division II’s Player of the Year.
As of Aug. 8, W-G coach Jesse Vincent said junior Kaleb Dohm was going to play center, but any of four to five players would play the other two guard positions. The Thunderhawks are expected to have elite team speed.
T-B has senior Cayde Welsh with 372 passing and six touchdowns, along with 711 rushing and 14 TDs. The Titans return their top-four tacklers, paced by Welsh’s 87.
Victoria deep in backfield; look to use two quarterbacks
Victoria has several positional adjustments and will use two quarterbacks.
Senior Nate Windholz played tailback as a sophomore and offensive guard in 2020. He will become the starting fullback this year. Windholz will be a three-year starter at cornerback.
Junior Carson Werth was a big-play threat in the backfield and return game. He rushed for 608 yards and nine touchdowns, along with three defensive interceptions. Junior Thaddeus Wohler is expected to see some time at quarterback. Wohler displayed talent last year and started at safety, though broke his hand in the season opener versus La Crosse and missed a good chunk of last season.
“Thaddeus is going to see some time at quarterback for us this year,” Oberle said. “We are going to be able to give Grant a little bit of time on that side of the ball off.”
Sophomore Chase Schumacher is in the running back mix. Junior Lane Schmidtberger has played fullback the last few years. Schumacher could factor in the defensive end/linebacker mix.
Sophomore Seth Schwien played as much or more of any freshman Oberle has ever had. A TE/DL, Schwien posted 4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash and 27.5 inches in the vertical leap.
“A lot of potential with Seth,” Oberle said. “He has got to continue to grow. He has got to get better at a lot of things.”
Junior Vance Hockersmith is back after a serious automobile accident in April. Hockersmith could be a two-gap player at nose guard. He is expected to play more on run downs, and junior Tanis Brungardt will play nose on passing downs. Brungardt should play some at defensive end.
“He had a pretty bad pelvic injury, required quite a bit of surgery for that,” Oberle said of Hockersmith. “…Had some high hopes for him last year.”
Brungardt was very strong on the offensive line, including the state quarterfinal win versus Wheatland-Grinnell.
“Kind of came out of nowhere,” Oberle said.
Seniors Isaiah Aguilar and Grant Hammerschmidt are in the mix at OL/TE. Oberle said Hammerschmidt and junior Jarron Schmidt both “have a nice skill set.” Werth and Schoenrock return at linebacker, along with junior Taylor Anderson at cornerback.
“Gives us a lot of ability to move some people around,” Oberle said.
Thunder Ridge has trend of close games; looks to move up with experienced junior class
Alumnus Joel Struckhoff is in his fourth year as head coach for Thunder Ridge. A former running back and Shrine Bowler who still holds multiple eight-man records, Struckhoff has paced the Longhorns to 5-4, 9-2 and 5-4 marks. Before then, TR had not posted a winning season since ’14.
Thunder Ridge has played an unusually high number of close games, especially those within a score. In his first season, the Longhorns had wins by 12 and 10 points. Plus, TR went 1-1 in games decided by eight points or fewer (one score). The Longhorns lost to Sylvan-Lucas, 52-48, and beat Logan-Palco, 40-38, in overtime.
In ’19, that trend continued.
The Longhorns beat Sylvan-Lucas, 34-30. In Week 8, TR lost Reece Struckhoff, the eventual Sports In Kansas Division II Offensive Player of the Year, to injury. He didn’t play the second half of a home game versus Osborne that decided the district title.
TR had several then-freshmen, including Dylan Bice and Kaleb Wagenblast, step up. Thunder Ridge took the lead before Osborne scored the game-winning touchdown with 32.5 seconds remaining.
In the playoffs, TR trailed Hutchinson Central Christian, 58-20. The Longhorns completed a Hail Mary just before halftime and nearly came all the way back in a 64-60 loss.
Last season, the Longhorns played four games decided by six points or fewer – the most in Division II. Stafford and Norwich each had three. Overall, Division II teams were involved in 38 games decided by eight points or fewer (some against other D2 teams). Some squads, such as Hartford and Colony-Crest, had no games closer than 30 points.
“We have got the experience, but as a coach playing in that many tight games, it’s sure stressful,” Struckhoff said. “You don’t think you are going to have that many close games in eight-man like that either. They are typically a little bit more lopsided, but it was definitely fun and different experience for me – and definitely made me grow. You had to coach a lot differently in games like that.”
Thunder Ridge went 2-2 in such contests. The Longhorns opened with a 20-14 double-overtime victory versus Stockton. In Week 3, TR fell to Beloit St. John’s/Tipton, 21-18, in district play. The Longhorns held a 375-307 yardage advantage.
Three weeks later, an 18-12 loss to Osborne occurred. The Longhorns held a 255-253 edge in yards, though tossed three interceptions. Even a 30-point loss to Lebo produced 451 yards of offense for the Longhorns.
In the playoffs, Thunder Ridge lost, 42-40, to Axtell. TR led 20-0 at halftime and outgained the Eagles, 434-359, in the contest. Axtell scored three times in the final 2:53, including the game-winning score with 29 seconds remaining.
This year, Thunder Ridge returns Bice and Wagenblast, among eight-man’s top QB/WR combinations.
“We return a lot of kids,” Struckhoff said. “Looking for some of those sophomores going to be juniors, hopefully step up this year and lead a little bit more.”
Bice completed 86 of 146 passes for 1,394 yards with 15 scores against 11 interceptions. He rushed 129 times for 973 yards and 14 scores. Struckhoff has played with or coached all of top Thunder Ridge past quarterbacks, including Cade Rietzke, Blane Hrabe and Reece Struckhoff.
Coach Struckhoff said Bice has the best arm.
“Special arm talent,” coach Struckhoff said. “It’s something that I have not seen. Just very strong arm, accurate when he wants to be, needs to work on a little bit of his footwork. But arm talent-wise, he is one of the best arm talents I have seen in eight-man football overall – ever.”
The Longhorns return 91 percent of their receptions. Wagenblast paced TR with 27 catches for 433 yards. Dylan’s twin brother, Dalton, recorded 21 catches for 260 yards and two TDs.
“They have seen a lot of adversity over their years and hopefully it builds them to where we can make a good strong push in the playoffs, because we have seen every type of situation, whether it is close all game long or we make a comeback,” Struckhoff said. “These kids have kind of been through everything and hopefully it has molded them into players that know what’s expected, how we have got to do things to get where we want to go.”
Seven defensive starters are back. Bice led with 119 tackles, with senior Olin Brown second at 98 and Wagenblast third with 82. Mark Ferguson (team-high 11 sacks) is the key loss. Wagenblast delivered 10.5 sacks. Bice will remain at safety, Brown at linebacker and Wagenblast at defensive end in ’21.
“We have had good leaders and then when those leaders graduate, we replace them with more,” Struckhoff said.
TR finished No. 13 in Division II in scoring offense and defense with 38.9 points a contest and 29.4 points allowed. Struckhoff said Bice is known for his hard work and driven to become better. Bice is expected to take on a big leadership role. Struckhoff would like Bice to be make “a little bit smarter decisions,” especially with check downs.
“He has got to be one of the guys that can make all the reads,” Struckhoff said. “In eight-man, you don’t really think about a whole lot of reading and stuff, but when it comes down to it, throwing an interception versus not throwing an interception, we have always got a dump route that he can go to.”
Last year, Olin Hrabe and Brian Shaw shared time at center. This fall, Shaw, a 6-3, 285-pound junior will move to guard. Hrabe, a senior, will start at center. Shaw has really had a nice offseason and put on good weight.
“Expect him to do big things this year,” Struckhoff said of Shaw.
Defensively, sophomore 6-foot, 200-pound Joshua Ferguson is a breakout candidate. He played some at nose guard as a freshman and showcased excellent pass rushing skills with 3.5 sacks. Ferguson could play some DE/LB and possibly some TE.
“We just have so many kids with good hands this year,” Struckhoff said. “So I think that will be a big part of our game, spreading people out, passing the ball.”
Top-15 Eight-Man, Division II Scoring Offenses in 2020 (of 51 teams)
Overall, Division II teams averaged 33.9 points a contest in 2020, slightly higher than Division I’s average of 33.6.
St. Francis 49.1
Beloit-St. John’s/Tipton 44.6
Central Plains 44.5
South Barber 44.0
Top-15 Scoring Defenses in 2020
St. Francis 8.9
Central Plains 15.5
South Central 18.7
Thunder Ridge 29.4
Hutchinson Central Christian 30.2