The Blazers have lost just two small division games in the past four seasons and are looking to defend their NECC Small Division championship after back-to-back titles. The brunt of that will again hinge on quarterback Laban Davis. As the Blazers went 10-2 in 2020, Davis threw for 1,693 yards with a 53.6 percent completion rate and ran for for another 1,270 yards; he accounted for 41 touchdowns in the process. With a renewed focus for other teams on Davis and heavy graduation losses of some of his favorite targets, Eastside will have to make some adjustments.
“We will be a veteran team that plays aggressive hard-nosed football. We have to replace a really talented senior class but we feel some of our underclassmen will be very capable,” said Eastside coach Todd Mason. “Offensively we have two o-lineman who have started all four years, and a QB who is very dangerous both running and throwing. Defensively we will be very fast and physical with a lot of starters returning.”
They will benefit a lot in the return of all-state tight end Gavin Wallace, who led the team with 534 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season. He will lead a fast and physical offensive core. Look for the Blazers to take the next step by having such a variety of weapons with seniors Gabe Trevino, Kyler Bibbee and Johnny Eck, as well as juniors Dax Holman and Carsen Jacobs to be impact weapons for Davis and company.
Two-way line weapons like Isaiah Fuentes, Matt Jaqcons and Trevor Feichter are going to feature heavily in Eastside’s quest for another small division crown. Expect the Blazers to play a lot of two-way ball early, but there is some great potential depth with newcomers like Joey Eck, Gunner Czaja and others that is expected to develop as the weeks go by.
Just 4-4 a season ago, Busco is ready to take some major leaps forward as a team that will try to push Eastside at the top of the small division. The Eagles return 14 starters, headed by 2020 all-conference and IFCA all-state selection Hunter Bianski, who can be an absolute terror on the defensive line heading into his fourth season as a Churubusco starter. Bianski posted 82 tackles and 3.5 sacks a season ago and is one of the most intimidating defensive players in the NECC, regardless of division.
Riley Buroff returns for his junior season as a starter at quarterback and cornerback. His confidence grew throughout the 2020 season and he had a strong summer. Buroff passed for 736 yards last season. Busco will be able to use his rising passing IQ to offset a three-headed running attack, headed up by Wyatt Marks, who ran for 723 yards on 106 carries in 2020. Nick Nondorf will be another massive asset on both sides of the ball as the leading receiver and second leading rusher for Churubusco a season ago; he also shared some kicking and punting duties last season.
Ethan Hille returns on the offensive end to help the ground coverage with offensive line newcomers Peyton Jones and Croix Haberstock looking to assist.
Travis Emenhiser also returns as a starter on both sides of the ball. He helps the defensive core alongside Bianski, Buroff and Nondorf that also returns Kuper Papenbrock, Kaleb Oliver, Cullen Blake and Kameron Rinker. Those eight defensive returners accounted for 387 of the team’s 628 tackles in 2020. Rinker, especially, is one to watch after a spring running track that has coach Paul Sade with a very positive outlook on him. A variety of new faces could join that core though with linebackers Weston Brinker, Brandt Hurley, Ethan Smith and Gavin Huelsenbeck all expected to contribute.
Central Noble Cougars
Consistency is key for a Cougar group that stayed right in the NECC small division hunt last season before falling to Eastside. It helps then that second-year coach Hayden Kilgore has a pretty massive allotment of returners for a small school. That group is certainly highlighted by Will Hoover, Ashton Smith and Ashton Dunlap, all seniors.
“This is a really deep senior class for us. Could see upwards of 12-plus seniors. That being said, we are returning seven offensive starters and nine defensive starters,” Kilgore said. “Both sides of the ball will have plenty of experience. All five starters on the offensive line are returning as well as our top two running backs. This group brings a lot of leadership and experience to this season.”
Hoover really moved the needle for Central Noble last season, running for 767 yards while amassing 135 tackles on the other side of the ball. Smith had over 700 all-purpose yards himself on offense and will be a really great option for the Cougars while Dunlap is a key linebacker. Those three, like all of Central Noble’s top returners, will play on both sides of the ball. Chase Spencer, Preston Diffendarfer (3 INT), Cade Weber and Logan Hawk also return on both sides of the ball. The Cougars will find more familiarity in returning offensive and defensive linemen Isaac Clay, Lane Norris, Jackson Hoover, Riley Bremer and Tim Rawles. Oh yeah, all 12 of those guys we’ve named? They are seniors, leading a charge for a group that has helped build up the program.
“We are looking for a few key pieces on our offense and defense this year. We need to fill a quarterback position and a running back position as well. We will need to add some depth across the board and will need a lot of our younger players to step up this season,” Kilgore said.
That means replacing Sawyer Yoder at QB (790 passing yards) and Clayton Kirkpatrick (408 rushing yards) at running back after their graduations. Sophomores Tyler Shisler and Devin Hiestand could fill those voids.
New coach Trevor Thomas did not acquire an easy rebuild at Fremont, but the schedule could give it a few weeks to really work out the kinks. The Eagles did push Central Noble to overtime last year in an abbreviated 3-4 season but have not posted a winning record since 2009.
Gone is most of the offense from 2020, which belonged to graduated Kameron Colclasure (333 yards passing, 776 yards rushing). The Eagles return just 26 yards of rushing and 222 yards of receiving, with 170 of that belonging to Logan Brace, who will handle the brunt of the leadership and expectations for the 2021 season. Brace also comes back as the top returning defensive player, registering 38 tackles in 2020 to go with a pair of sacks. Junior running back Collin Green, senior lineman Terran Wills and junior left guard Austin Caskey will also be important returners.
Look for a lot of changes in the Fremont program under the new coach, including a change in its offensive scheme to be more balanced and less run heavy like they were in 2020. That starts with seeing a lot of young linemen have to step up to create opportunities with a solid freshman class that will be leaned on more than traditionally happens. It also means that Fremont needs to really have a quarterback that can make things happen. Sources indicated that a preseason battle between senior Buck Behrman, junior Zak Pica and sophomore Gage Cope was brewing. So who can best take the next step for the Eagles?
When there is a big change in culture, it is always hard to predict how a team will go but Fremont is certainly going to be intriguing to watch.
Prairie Heights Panthers
With just six wins over the past four seasons, Prairie Heights has nowhere to look but up. The Panthers struggled to put points on the board last season, not scoring in conference and only putting up 78 points over 11 total contests. The positive is that a younger group was able to learn a lot of lessons in those games. The Panthers’ top nine returners are all seniors, led by quarterback Luke Severe and two-way running back/linebacker Cam Hall.
Hall could be a critical piece for Prairie Heights after missing six games last season. When he was active, he was tough, registering 25 solo tackles and 16 assists. The Panthers are going to need him to slow down some pretty tough offenses they will face, but they will also lean on him to really power through offensively and get them on the scoreboard.
Severe returns under center where he will look to make big targets out of receiver Colton Penick and tight end Hunter Allen.
Another defensive impact player should be Sam Levitz. The senior had 75 solo tackles a season ago and will help control a defensive pace and consistency at inside linebacker in 2021.
“The strength in our team this season will be the experience of our offensive line, returning all starters from last season,” said Prairie Heights coach Patrick McCrea. “We are looking for guys to step up to take spots at cornerback on defense. We have untested varsity experience at the corner positions. Out senior class is a determined group and we are excited to get the season started.”
Laban Davis, Eastside
There is no doubt that Laban Davis will continue to be one of the biggest eye openers in the entire NECC. He is tough as nails and a real dual threat that keeps opposing defenses guessing. If Davis has proven anything over the past couple of seasons, it is that as soon as you think you have him figured out, you are probably going to realize you were wrong.
Will Hoover, Central Noble
Hoover is deceptively quick to the ball defensively and alters the offensive side of things for other teams. When you talk about guys in the NECC who can really bottle things up, Hoover has to be at the top of the list. Expect another season where his name is listed as 1A on a lot of scouting reports.
Logan Brace, Fremont
There are several teams in the NECC small division that need a guy to step up and just be THAT guy. It happens in Fremont where Brace is expected to handle a large burden. It happens because he is the top returner, it happens because he is coming from a successful role in a good basketball season. Brace’s continued push is what will be the difference in the same old Eagles or a reinvigorated group.
NECC SMALL DIVISION PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
3. Central Noble
5. Prairie Heights
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