Football in Kansas: Eight-Man, Division II Preview: Axtell is the “cream of the crop,” though senior-laden Canton-Galva, T. Ridge headline contenders


Sports in Kansas will have in-depth previews on all nine classes, six-man to 6A, in the next three weeks. All per-game football statistics and per-game rankings from Conor Nicholl, SIK, along with databases from KPreps and Prep Power Index. Eight-Man, Division I and Six-Man are already at Follow along for video interviews from SIK’s Bethany Bowman, too.

Kinsley’s Conner Chamberlain is a dynamic returning player. The Coyotes are a possible breakout team. Canton-Galva, Kinsley, Marmaton Valley move down from Division I and all are key contenders. (Photo courtesy Kinsley Athletics)

Eight-Man, Division II: Axtell is the “cream of the crop,” but Canton-Galva, Thunder Ridge are heavily senior-laden; traditional powers loaded with experience

Wheatland-Grinnell coach Jesse Vincent stood at Newton’s Fischer Field after the Eight-Man, Division II title game loss to Axtell last November. W-G posted a 19-5 record in the last two seasons, including the best finish in school annals with the state runner-up. W-G went 0-3 against Axtell in that stretch, including a pair of defeat in the first and last games of 2021.

Vincent has long had plenty of respect for Axtell coach Eric Detweiler. The Eagles posted a 13-0 season and won their second all-time football crown. Axtell had zero seniors in key roles. As a junior, quarterback Isaac Detweiler paced all of eight-man in total offense. He completed 76 percent of his passes for 1,984 yards with 34 scores against two interceptions. As well, he delivered 207 carries for 1,273 yards and 29 scores.

Freshman cousins Brandon Schmelzle and Eli Broxterman were electrifying playmakers. Schmelzle nationally led eight-man freshmen in total TDs with 32, two more than Broxterman. Axtell’s line featured first team all-state pick Owen Strathman, along with Sawyer Deters and Grady Buessing. Axtell led the classification in scoring offense and defense.

 Conversation already swirled that Axtell was the next Hanover.

Hanover, Axtell’s chief rival, won Division II titles in ’16, ’17, ’18 and ’20, and set the state record for consecutive eight-man victories at 43.

“I would not be betting against them for a repeat next year,” Vincent told SIK afterward. “They are going to be solid.”

Since then, two major changes, one of them involving Vincent and his son, Jett, have re-shaped Eight-Man, Division II for the 2022 season. In a highly publicized move, Jesse Vincent resigned his administrative and coaching positions in the Wheatland-Grinnell school district and became the Canton-Galva principal.

Jett, the reigning Division II Defensive Player of the Year, has more than several college offers and is one of the best receivers/safeties in eight-man recent history. Jett replaces Tyson Struber, who led C-G to a Division I state title as a sophomore and state semifinals in ’19 and ’21. Struber broke multiple Kansas eight-man receiving records and signed with Kansas State. Vincent can set several state marks, most notably all-classes career interceptions.

Plus, Canton-Galva narrowly squeaked under the enrollment line for new classifications and is now in Division II.

While Axtell is highly likely preseason No. 1, Canton-Galva has emerged as another strong contender in the East.

Canton-Galva, 9-2 in Division I, is extremely experienced with nine seniors. For the most part, the nine will all start or contribute in one way or another.

“This is one of those years to where if you are going to make a special run, this is the year to do it,” C-G coach Shelby Hoppes told SIK this summer. “Because we are not only experienced – because we were experienced coming back into last year – we are also all seniors. Last year, they were sophomores coming into their junior year having that varsity experience as sophomores building on as juniors, but now they are all seniors.”

Plus, Thunder Ridge, which lost to Axtell in the East semifinals, switched back to the West and returns more than eight seniors.

“I hate to say this, but I am glad we got away from the east, because I really feel like that side’s going to beat each other up before they get to the state championship game,” Thunder Ridge coach Joel Struckhoff said to SIK. “I think that that’s side probably just a little bit harder this year than the West will be, so in my eyes, I am thankful that we are going West, kind of stay away from some of that.”

“Because there’s going to be a really good ball club out of the East that’s going to be left out this year from the state championship game, because I feel that Canton-Galva is a state champion quality, Axtell obviously is, and Osborne is always in that mix. You’ve got Hanover that’s always in that mix. There’s so many good teams on that East side.”

Axtell, C-G and TR headline an intriguing class where multiple teams, including Norwich (5-3), Kinsley (5-4) and Marmaton Valley (4-5), should enjoy their best seasons in years, if not decades. Kinsley has not won more than five games since the ‘90s. Norwich has not collected more than six wins in a season since ’08, per Kansas Football History and SIK research.

“We kind of an opportunity to take the program somewhere where we maybe haven’t been for awhile, and that gets the boys excited,” Kinsley coach Corey Dunlap said to SIK this summer. “… This is something that that the people sitting in stands maybe haven’t ever seen before.”

Plus, traditional powers Victoria (10-2), Osborne (5-3) and Hanover (6-4) will be in the mix. Those teams won every Division II title from ’14-20.

Lebo finished No. 5 in the final Division II poll behind Axtell, W-G, Thunder Ridge and Victoria, and returns multiple key players from a 9-2 squad. Dighton (9-2) returns prolific quarterback Max Neeley.

Bucklin, coming off an 8-2 season and its top finish since 1996, and powerful Frankfort, 29-10 in the last four falls, should contend.

Marmaton Valley, a potential breakout team, Colony-Crest and Lebo should pace District 1. Canton-Galva will be the District 2 favorite, followed by Norwich. As normal, Twin Valley League stalwarts Axtell, Hanover, and Frankfort (7-3) are in the same district. Osborne should led District 4.

In the West, Victoria is the front runner with Central Plains and Sylvan-Lucas likely next in District 5. Thunder Ridge is the significant District 6 favorite. District 7 is more even with likely Kinsley and Kiowa-South Barber (five nine-win seasons in the last six years). Dighton, which defeated Bucklin for a district title last season, headlines the District 8 pack.

“Eight for sure that can compete, and I think where it gets to be is who gets people hurt, who catches the break here and there, you are going to have close games,” Struckhoff said.

The Division II floor is likely higher this season, which should yield fewer 45-point margins and definitely lessen the forfeits. Eleven teams moved into the first year of KSHSAA six-man football. Of the 21 Division II squads that won two or fewer games, 11 went to six-man and South Haven joined a co-op with nearby Caldwell and jumped to Division I.

“Axtell is obviously the cream of the crop,” Hoppes said. “They are coming off of their undefeated season, and they are the ones with the trophy, so they are the ones to beat, and that’s going to be our goal all year long is to somehow get to them.”

“He’s going to bring that physical presence.” – Canton-Galva looks for second state title in four seasons

C-G won the ’19 state title. Many of the seniors were freshmen on that team and played zero or extremely limited roles. Hoppes and starting running back/linebacker Ryder Norstrom have talked about the championship. Norstrom rushed 79 times for 575 yards and nine scores a year ago.

“They don’t think that one is theirs,” Hoppes said. “They were a part of that team, but you are just a freshman, you are a scout team player. They want to go earn one that they can call theirs as seniors going out, and go out as seniors the way that they came in as freshmen.”

Coach Vincent and Jett came down to Canton-Galva and toured the school before accepting the job. That marked the first time Hoppes met Jett, who is 6-foot-3, 185 pounds. Jett has displayed at 35-inch vertical jump and picked up multiple offers this summer, including Chadron State, Peru State and Missouri Southern.

Vincent delivered 67 catches for 1,341 yards and 18 receiving scores. He led all of eight-man in receiving yards, per MaxPreps. Defensively, Vincent has started at safety each season and is a top-10 all-classes defensive back. Vincent delivered 125 tackles and six interceptions.

For his career, Vincent has 111 catches for 2,150 yards and 33 TDs, along with 28 interceptions. The all-time state record is 32, set by St. John’s Travis Neidig from 2004-07.

“Great kid, great family,” Hoppes said.

Then, Hoppes went to speak at a northern Missouri coaching clinic in early March. Coach Vincent happened to be going as well. The two spent time together at the clinic. Canton-Galva officially posted via Twitter that Coach Vincent had taken the C-G position March 9.

Axtell’s Isaac Detweiler and Jett Vincent (now with Canton-Galva) are the classes’ returning Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year.

“I still didn’t know if they were coming to Canton-Galva at that point,” Hoppes said. “Then, our school president texted me when he accepted, and said, ‘Jesse is coming, and he’s bringing Jett with him of course.’ I know it was exciting. It was great news. It was going to be a great transition. Obviously losing Tyson, who is one of the best to ever do it at our level. It will just make things easier for our offense and defensively. Because (Jett) is a heck of a player.”

Struber was Division I’s Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore and Offensive Player of the Year last fall. A Shrine Bowl receiver, Struber was known for his speed, polish and route running. He is expected to be offense at Kansas State. Vincent is likely more of a defensive player in college.

C-G features senior quarterback Garrett Maltbie, a three-year starter and among the state’s best for all classes. Maltbie threw for 2,090 yards with 33 touchdowns against two interceptions. In his career, Maltbie has 3,528 passing yards, a 61.5 completion rate, 58 scores and just six interceptions.

“He’s long, he’s rangy, he’s going to play that free safety position for us,” Hoppes said. “And what I have noticed, even though we haven’t been in pads yet, but I have watched a lot of film on him, and the little bit we’ve had team time, he’s going to come down the hill, and he’s going to finish people, and he’s going to bring that physical presence that we have been needing on the defensive side. So, I think that’s where he is going to thrive is on that defensive side, but he is one heck of a receiver, too.”

Axtell is the smallest Division II school in Kansas with 36 students in the official ninth, tenth and 11th KSHSAA count. Canton-Galva has 66 students. Burlingame, Oberlin and Osborne have 67. Burlingame and Oberlin previously stayed in Division I since the two were formerly Division I teams. Osborne remained in Division II.

Hoppes said Canton-Galva had not shifted down when the classifications were first released to athletic directors.

“We were the smallest Division I in that classification,” Hoppes said. “And then one of the consolidated schools, they had miscounted enrollment one way or another. … A couple of days later we get this phone call that ‘Actually, you are going to be moving down to Division II.’”

Canton-Galva has generally played Division I staples Little River, Madison and Burlingame in the last few seasons. C-G, which will open against Wheat State League rival LR, played the Redskins twice last season.

“We are not familiar with anybody on our schedule,” Hoppes said. “We are going to have to obviously get the film and everything like that, but I could have told you most of the kids on the roster for the Madisons, the Burlingames, the Little Rivers, and I can’t tell you any of these kids. It’s going to be new for us for sure.”

In addition to Maltbie and Vincent, C-G has multiple standouts, including 6-foot-4, 200-pound senior end T.J. Koehn. He delivered 288 receiving yards and four scores, along with 102 tackles, 15.5 for loss. Koehn will stay at strong side defensive end and will remain at the tight end. Koehn will be one of C-G’s top defensive players.

“We need to find a way to get him the ball more,” Hoppes said. “He’s a weapon.  He’s tall, he’s lanky, he’s got some speed.”

Senior Preston Minson will start at center. Junior Isom Marstan will start at guard. Junior Wyatt Collins returns as a starting guard. Sophomore Noah Collins will see some time when C-G goes to a five-man line. Senior Cason Mastre is another strong pass catcher with 31 catches for 630 yards and 10 scores. Senior Braison Alcala will provide depth at defensive back. Alcala broke his foot on the second day of practice last season.

Senior Nick Evans is the 132-pound state powerlifting phenom. Evans dominated the 132-pound division at state with first place in overall (840), first in bench (255), first in clean (255) and second in squat (330). In his weight class, he shattered the state record for overall and bench and tied the clean record, per KEMFA powerlifting site. Evans will provide some high-quality depth at nose guard. Evans has a weight set at his house.

“He has got a motor that’s unbelievable,” Hoppes said. “And he has obviously got the strength.”

Junior Lane McMannis will take over Struber’s spot at linebacker. The defensive line will have Koehn and Collins at defensive end.

“These guys can basically run the show” – Experienced-laden Thunder Ridge headlines West

In Week 8 of the 2019 season, Thunder Ridge played Osborne in a marquee matchup of two undefeated squads. The game decided the district championship. Osborne eventually won the state title. TR star Reece Struckhoff suffered injury and did not play in the second half. However, Thunder Ridge more than held its own with five then-freshmen on the field at the same time: Dylan and Dalton Bice, Brian Shaw, Jace Randall, and Kaleb Wagenblast.

That group had enjoyed success in junior high. Back then, an assistant coach told Struckhoff, “they are going to be good.” Struckhoff demurred at first. Then, they went to undefeated in eighth grade, showed up to weights, continued to work hard and have great chemistry.

Struckhoff’s view crystallized during the Osborne game. Osborne won, 40-34, with a late touchdown. Thunder Ridge eventually finished 9-2. TR went 5-4 in 2020 before it vaulted to 11-1 and the semifinal berth last year. In ’21, Thunder Ridge earned wins against Osborne, Frankfort twice and Lebo. Struckhoff believed the Osborne game “definitely helped” those players.

“From that day, it sure did make you feel good that you knew that those guys were going to develop more and more every year, and now we are at the point where these guys can basically run the show,” Struckhoff told SIK this summer.

Now, that current senior group includes many of eight-man’s top players.

“It’s just so nice,” Struckhoff said. “And then they are all friends as well, so they work really well together. I mean, they’ve just made a bond with each other.”

Wagenblast, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound tight end/defensive end, has multiple collegiate offers, including Bethel. Dylan Bice is among Kansas’ top signal callers and holds a Bethel offer. His twin, Dalton, plays multiple positions and is known for doing the little things that help teams win.

“They just exceeded expectations to no end,” Struckhoff said. “They wanted to be good. They wanted to work. They really manifested everything from that time.”

Last season, Dylan Bice completed 61 of 81 passes for 1,042 yards with nine scores against two interceptions. He rushed 122 times for 1,459 yards with 27 scores.

“Does a great job running our offense,” Struckhoff said.

Dalton Bice delivered 87 carries for 622 yards and 11 scores. Randall had 56 rushes for 426 yards and three scores.

Randall led with 20 catches for 373 yards and three scores. Wagenblast finished with 15 catches for 216 yards and two TDs. Dalton Bice recorded 14 catches and a pair of scores. Dylan was second with 103 tackles, followed by Dalton (95), junior Joseph Ferguson (94), Wagenblast (78) and Randall (62). Shaw, currently at 6-foot-3, 300, has served as a key lineman.

Struckhoff believes Dalton Bice is an underrated player. Dalton broke his wrist against Frankfort and played the entire playoffs with the injury. He never said a word, saw the trainer and got it wrapped.

“That dude has got a motor,” Struckhoff, 30-10 in four years as a head coach for his alma mater, said. “He ran for a lot of yards last year, made a lot of tackles from the defensive end position for us last year, and he’s just got a motor for the ball, whether it’s on offense, he keeps those legs going, going to keep them driving, going to try to get that extra yard, two yards, three yards. He’s on defense, he’s going to charge you from the backside defensive end position, he might get you on a sweep from the other side, because you were looking for a cutback.”

Thunder Ridge has an abundance of tight ends, and Wagenblast could move down to guard.

“Probably one of the best blockers we have on the team once he latches onto you,” Struckhoff said. “Our line last year – very, very good, always in position, doubled well, stayed on blocks, and I had hoped that’s something that transitions into this year.”

TR also has 6-foot-4, 180-pound senior Jashawn Dodds, who is expected to be a breakout player. Dodds had some JV games where he had 10-plus receptions.

“One of those hidden talents that probably should have played some last year, but he was just stuck behind some people,” Struckhoff said.

Senior Hunter Gitchel is in the 6-3, 230-pound range and will fill a hole on the line. Gitchel had hurt his knee as a freshman.

“A real big contributor this year for us as well,” Struckhoff said.

“He’s fun to watch” – Traditional power Victoria paced by veteran corps

Longtime power Victoria has delivered back-to-back state semifinal trips with competitive losses to St. Francis and Wheatland-Grinnell. Victoria fought through a variety of injuries, especially in the backfield for longtime coach Doug Oberle. The Knights return multiple key players, including cousins Thaddeus Wohler (QB) and Seth Schwien (End), and senior elite all-purpose threat Carson Werth.

Victoria has used Werth in different and unique positions, especially for someone who is around 150 pounds. The Knights have at times used him as a stand-up nose guard about a yard, yard and a half off the ball.

“Carson is a guy that just loves the game,” Oberle told SIK this summer. “He loves putting on the pads, he loves competing. He’s a very good tackler. He’s very instinctive. Probably one of the more instinctive players I have had. I have had very good football players that maybe were a little bit more read players, understand the play, read. He’s just very instinctive.”

Wohler, a senior, completed 30 of 58 passes for 480 yards with seven TDs against one interception. He delivered 64 rushes for 314 yards. Wohler had a solid summer and camp. Schwien, a junior, led with 15 catches for 280 yards and six scores. Schwien saw extensive time as a freshman and sophomore and has solid size and ability to catch the ball well. Schwien participated in track, which Oberle said helped him “tremendously” with his foot speed.

“Thaddeus really gives us an opportunity,” Oberle said. “Pretty good athlete. I think he reads the option well, and even maybe not necessarily the veer option, but our speed option game, and some of our read option stuff, does a good job. I think he throws the ball well. We are not where we need to be in that aspect, but I think we are getting there.”

Senior Lane Schmidtberger also improved with 30 carries for 217 yards and a pair of TDs and played well defensively with 43 stops. Oberle was highly complimentary of Schmidtberger this summer.

Senior lineman Vance Hockersmith is an experienced player. Hockersmith’s brother, Wheaton, was a key lineman and helped set the defense for the ’14 and ’15 state teams.

Senior Tanis Brungardt, a returning first team all-state pick, is expected not to play.

“We are excited,” Oberle said. “It’s just going to take a little time to kind of put things together, figure out who we are, but I am excited for that.”

In the spring of his freshman year, Hockersmith had a pelvic fracture from an automobile accident. Hockersmith required multiple pins and plates. Defensively, Hockersmith will play nose, historically a position of strength for Victoria.

“The Hockersmith kid has had a really, really good spring,” Oberle said. “A really good summer.”

Werth is on the short list for eight-man’s best all-around player. He delivered 117 carries for 1,108 yards with 16 rushing scores, all team-bests. Werth led with 10 TFLs and seven sacks; he ranked was third with 81 tackles. Werth had 36 yards per punt and 327 kickoff yards as a return specialist.

Victoria has posted a winning season every year since it switched to eight-man football in 2000. The Knights won state titles in ’04, ’06, ’14 and ’15, and won at least nine games 12 times in that span, including 10-2 last season.

“Certainly his running ability on the offensive side,” Oberle said of Werth. “I think he reads things very well, sets his blocks up, very natural, I mean just plays really hard. I mean, he’s fun to watch because he plays really hard. And I think that rubs off on a lot of the guys. He can catch the ball. He makes tackles. Whatever we need him to do, I think he does it. He could long snap for us. He punts for us. He kicks off for us. He even kicked some field goals last year.”

Lebo returns plenty of experience after successful season

Lebo graduated first team all-state dual threat quarterback Kyle Reese. He threw for 1,361 yards, rushed for 1,261 and accounted for 53 touchdowns. Past that, Lebo returns six starters, along with multiple contributors. The Wolves return senior offensive threat Landon Grimmett. He passed for 147 yards and a score and caught 24 passes for 541 yards and six TDs.

Senior Luke Davies finished with 20 catches for 365 yards and seven scores. Defensively, Corey Reese had 50 tackles, seven TFLs and two interceptions. Davies delivered 46.5 tackles, 10 pass breakups and three interceptions. Senior Addison Smith had 33.5 tackles, 9.5 TFLs and five sacks. Grimmett is expected to step up at quarterback. Corey Reese will start at running back.

Davies mostly played tight end in ’21, though Lebo will look to get the ball in multiple positions this season. Junior Dominic Risner is expected to emerge at tight end.

“The Wolves’ offensive and defensive line will be the strength of our team this year,” coach Brian Hadley said.

Lebo returns all three line starters: seniors Austin Bailey and Isaac Durst, and sophomore Zach Oswald. Bailey was unanimous first team all-conference and all-state defensive line. Senior Addison Smith and sophomore Drew Konrade will play wide receiver. Junior Kord Kiefer finished with 30 tackles, seven TFLs and a sack.

“We have big gains in the weight room this summer,” Hadley said.

Kinsley looking for historical success

After winless seasons in ’16 and ’17, the Coyotes have steadily built with 2-7, 2-7, 5-4 and 5-4 marks the last four years under coach Corey Dunlap and assistant Kyle Burkhart. Kinsley has not won more than five games in a season since the ‘90s. The Coyotes bumped to Division II this year and has an opportunity for their best season in decades.

Kinsley has one senior, Dawson Sexton, known for his vocal leadership and high football IQ. The Coyotes have a huge junior class that includes quarterback Peyton Schmidt, hybrid player Dylan Haselhorst, linemen Kaden Arensman and Efrain Holguin, along wide receivers Cason Lemuz and Conner Chamberlain.

The current juniors were in sixth grade when Dunlap came to Kinsley. Dunlap was aware there was a large group of boys who loved playing sports together. Schmidt has always played quarterback. Haselhorst was a center/nose tackle/defensive end in sixth grade. Many of the Coyotes are in the same positions they were at in youth.

Haselhorst and Arensman started as freshmen. Schmidt and Chamberlain started halfway through their freshman year. Haselhorst was honorable mention utility back as a freshman, and first team all-league defensive line as a sophomore.

“Luckily they have grown pretty well,” Dunlap said. “It was a class that people thought had some potential, and hopefully we kind of reach that.”

In 2021, Schmidt delivered 46 of 109 passing for 802 yards with 19 scores against seven interceptions. Chamberlain recorded 91 carries for 633 yards with eight TDs. He caught 17 passes for 305 yards and five scores. Lemuz finished with 49 total tackles and two interceptions.

Last year, Kinsley allowed 27.4 points a contest, No. 13 best in Division I. Haselhorst is a returning first team all-league player after 47 tackles, 6.5 tackles and two sacks, along with five rushing TDs. Haselhorst can play multiple positions and will likely be at guard.

“It’s like a great problem to have,” Dunlap said. “Because we’d love to have him play everywhere, but just having somebody that we are comfortable at, playing them at a guard or at end or at a fullback or tailback, putting him out at receiver, and then defensively, he’s good in coverage…He’s a good run-stuffer, and we move him around about everywhere defensively, it gives us a lot of versatility.”

Dunlap said Holguin has “completely transformed” his body. Holguin will shift from guard to center. Holguin has dropped about 35 to 40 pounds and put on muscle. He is 5-foot-11, 215 pounds.

“He looks like a different kid this year, and looks really good,” Dunlap said.

Sophomore Braison Sexton is expected to play on the offensive line.

Dunlap believes a key improvement is needing “top-tier linebacker play”; the LBs have to be aggressive and play downhill. In five games last season (the four losses and a late win against Pratt Skyline), Kinsley collectively allowed 240 rushing yards a game and 6.7 yards per carry.

Kinsley will open against Central Prairie League foe Victoria. It marks the first time in at least 20 years Kinsley and Victoria will play against each other.

“Victoria is going to be good, so we are excited,” Dunlap said.

Marmaton Valley looks for breakthrough

Marmaton Valley has 10 wins in the last four seasons. In 2020, the Wildcats had to forfeit their last three contests in a one-victory fall. Last year, MV bumped to 4-5 and defeated Oswego, 106-98, in the highest scoring game in Kansas football history.

In Division I, MV allowed the fourth-most points per game at 53.8. However, Marmaton Valley was No. 14 in the classification with 43.6 points a contest. This season, MV drops to Division II. The Wildcats have not won more than six games in a year since a 10-1 mark in 2012.

MV returns seven starters for coach Max Mickunas, an Atwood-Rawlins County graduate.

Marmaton Valley has superb sophomore Jaedon Granere, who took third in the Class 1A state 200-meter dash. Granere had 21 total touchdowns, along with 387 rushing yards and 636 receiving yards. Granere recorded 26 tackles and four interceptions. Granere was first team all-league and honorable mention all-state.

“He is lightning in a bottle,” Mickunas said. “He isn’t real big, but he’s very fast and has about the best quick twitch movements I’ve seen.”

Senior tight end Dylan Drake (6-foot-4) finished with 37 tackles and an interception. Brayden Lawson delivered 38 stops, while senior guard Bryce Ensminger had three sacks and three fumble recoveries.

Sophomore Brayden Lawson (6-1, 185) will move to quarterback after he started all but one game at tight end. Sophomore Dre Ellis and senior George Moore will be the running backs. Moore is a first-time starter and has worked hard this summer. Ellis is expected to be a breakout player. He is an Iola transfer and won’t be eligible until Week 3. Granere and freshman Tyler Lord will be the wide receivers.

Junior Daniel Fewins will be at center, and three seniors: Ensminger, Cesar Morales, and Evan Kent will be at guard, guard and fullback/H-back.

Kent, Ensminger, Morales and Fewins will be at defensive line. Lawson, Ellis and Moore will play linebacker. Granere, Drake and Chase Smith will play defensive back. Smith, a junior, transferred from Uniontown last year.

Ensminger, Morales and Fewins are back as starters. Kent (6-3, 235) will move from center.

“He is a kid to watch out for,” Mickunas said of Kent. “He is extremely fast for how big he is, and I think he will be great on the defensive line for us.”

Additionally, MV has an impressive freshman class.

“We have depth this year that we just simply didn’t have last year,” Mickunas said. “Our main emphasis will be on the defensive side of the ball. I think if we can improve in that facet and stay healthy, we could surprise some people this season. We have a lot of good athletes.”

Dighton brings back Max Neeley

Veteran Dighton coach Ken Simon has twice earned Division II coach of the year honors, in ’16 and ‘18. He was in the conversation for a third in ’21 after another big jump for the Hornets. Dighton had an eight-win improvement from 1-7 to 9-2 and district championship.

Neeley, a senior and two-time state pole vault champion, completed 58 percent of passes for 995 yards with 15 scores against six interceptions. He rushed 224 times for 1,588 yards and 31 scores. Sophomore Daniel Cramer had 26 catches for 388 yards and nine TDs.

Neeley led Dighton with 114 tackles. Senior Eli Wilkinson was second with 88 stops and led with 12 TFLs.

“They have done a heck of a job working in the weight room and busting their tails to try to get better, and it’s kind of paid off for them,” Simon told SIK last year.

Other top teams, class notes

Hanover – Legendary coach Matt Heuer has won six state championships, tied with former Hanston coach Jerry Slaton for the most eight-man titles all-time. Hanover lost twice to Axtell and split with Osborne. The Wildcats went through a variety of injuries and key players missed games. No Wildcat returns with more than 41 rushing yards or two touchdown passes. Senior Josh Zarybnicky is a talented player after 24 catches for 620 yards and 12 scores. Senior Cole Meyer has 83 tackles, Zarybnicky delivered 80 and senior Chase Bruna had 58. They ranked second, third and fourth for tackles. Heuer has won state titles before after needing to replace all starters the next season.

Osborne: Acclaimed coach Steve Tiernan won state crowns with Baileyville B&B and Osborne and brought Solomon to a state runner-up. Junior quarterback Doak Guttery is back after 40 of 79 passing for 631 yards with 10 scores against four interceptions. He delivered 76 rushes for 314 yards and four TDs. Junior Nathan Goheen paced the defense with 66 tackles, seven for loss.

Norwich: Norwich has two dynamic players with senior RB/LB Jace Gosch and junior QB Tray Schroeder. Gosch is an exceptional athlete who showcased his dunking in basketball. Gosch helped Norwich to a 22-2 basketball record. Gosch was second team all-league running back and honorable mention defense. Schroeder was second team all-league quarterback.

Bucklin: Coach Trever Powell has delivered an impressive turnaround with the Red Aces. Bucklin enjoyed its best football finish since the ‘90s, and a final-four basketball finish with coach Derek Bevan, tops in school history. Junior Andrew Bowman is back after 28 catches for 493 yards and four scores.

South Barber: Junior Briggs Jewell is back after a big season. He completed 85 of 150 passes for 1,340 yards with 22 scores against five interceptions. He rushed 150 times for 527 yards and seven TDs.

Quinter: Former QHS all-state lineman and Quinter assistant Cody Corwin takes over as head coach. Quinter posted an 8-2 record, a five-win improvement, and its top season since ’09. Quinter returns several talented players, including QB Preston Havlas and OL/DL Braden Polifka, who has picked up college offers.

Colony-Crest: The Lancers finished 5-4 with zero seniors in skill positions. Senior Holden Barker rushed 214 times for 2,071 yards and 36 scores. Senior Ethan Godderz delivered 335 passing yards and 935 rushing yards.

Top-15 Offenses (out of 51)

Axtell 54.2

Thunder Ridge 52.3

Caldwell 50.4

Victoria 48.92

Lebo 48.91

Wheatland-Grinnell 47.7

Downs-Lakeside 46.7

Colony-Crest 46.7

Dighton 43.7

Quinter 43.2

South Barber 42.7

Bucklin 41.3

Hanover 40.0

MdCV 40.0

Waverly 38.9

Top-15 Defenses (out of 51)

Axtell 12.3

Lebo 13.8

Thunder Ridge 15.8

Dighton 16.2

South Barber 17.4

Sylvan-Lucas 18.9

Victoria 19.2

Wheatland-Grinnell 19.9

Quinter 20.0

Waverly 20.0

Osborne 20.5

Bucklin 20.7

Norwich 22.0

Caldwell 22.4

Hanover 22.6

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