In the past three seasons, the NECC Big Division has seen three different champions with Fairfield holding the crown in 2020, going 4-0 in the big division and undefeated overall until a Sectional loss.
All five of the teams in the division have won at least a share of a conference title in the past eight years going back to Fairfield and Lakeland splitting a pre division NECC title in 2013.
Who will take the lead in a pretty tight NECC Big Division in 2021?
Fairfield football is alive! 0-9 in 2018, the team turned around to get to 9-1 and win the big division of the NECC outright in 2021. That is a big turnaround under now fourth year head coach Matt Thacker. It even had Blitz really considering Thacker as the very best coach in the area last season because that turnaround deserves to be celebrated. Can it be continued?
“Honestly, this is the next step in our program as we graduate some talented young men who helped immensely in helping us get things turned around,” Thacker said. “As our roster looks now, the offensive and defensive lines should be a strength for us this season, but time will tell.”
The defensive side of the football, especially the line, will in fact be stout. Defensive tackle Jason Massaro is the team’s top returner after registering 40 tackles (9.5 for loss last season). Defensive end and fellow senior Grant Thacker is right there next to him figuratively and literally, coming off a 37 tackle season. Johnathon Estep and Andrew Zook, also seniors, add depth to that line as will newcomers Ethan Johnson and Braxton Davis. The team returns five linebackers who contributed in some way to the title team last year: Braedon Helms, Brenan Hochstetler, Brock Berkey, Wyatt Ernsberger and Austin Custer. That is a lot back from a 9-1 team that coach Thacker has to be happy about.
On the offensive side of the ball, there is quite a bit of work to do to replace quarterback/leading rusher Cory Lantz as well as the next two top rushers Carson Abramson and Quinn Kitson. This is a team that ran for 2,751 yards versus just 225 yards through the air so to keep that up, Estep is going to have to power through more to improve on his 385 yards and 70 attempts and he could be the guy to move this offense. Ernsberger, Ben Snider, Cohen Custer and Austin Custer will also have to fill in. If Fairfield does want to move the ball through he air, they will rely on Carter Kitson who can be a duel threat as he also can run the ball pretty well. Helms will also need to play a bigger role on the offense that replaces those critical pieces lost to graduation even as an all-NECC player a year ago.
“We will need some young men to step into varsity roles fairly quickly and that can be seen as a weakness as we will lack some varsity experience with them, but we will not use that as an excuse,” Thacker said. “The biggest question will be are our seniors satisfied with last year or will they want to add their own legacy to Falcon football?”
Can Angola get back to title town? The NECC big division was theirs for a couple of seasons, but they haven’t won the crown in the last two seasons. They need to put an emphasis of playing more edgy like those title teams of 2017 and 2018 were, when the program went 24-2 in that stretch. They did however go 3-1 in the big division last season.
The team never scored less that 41 points in their five wins last season but scoring just seven points total in their last two games of 2020 – including a 7-0 Sectional loss to DeKalb – has to leave a sour taste in their mouths and show where some guys need to step up, especially with the graduation of all-purpose scorer and yardage gainer Tucker Hasselman.
Offensive awareness and success will stay in the hands of a Hasselman, but this year it will be Finley Hasselman that will have to handle the brunt of the workload. Hasselman was All-NECC last year and isn’t a stranger to high expectations with the ball in his hands. New quarterback Tyler Call, who can throw the ball pretty well, will help relieve some of the pressure that will be put on Hasselman. Sophomore Lane King will line up at tight end.
Dylan Oberlin and Zach Steury are strong and a big part of the offensive line in opening those holes for Hasselman and company. Other names who will see time on the offensive line are Landon Gorrell, Rylan Gebhart and Jordan Sheets.
Brandon Villafuerte and Jake Land are defensive linemen that probably doesn’t get enough attention. They will not only be a solid pair of leaders for this group, but he can push back against what a conference that always has a heavy run game, sealing up holes and keeping opposing rushers from pushing forward. Linebacker Kyle Brandt (46.5 tackles) is a guy who will bring that toughness and edge that coach Andy Thomas is looking for, as will Hasselman on this side of the ball too as he also plays linebacker. Zack Buell returns at safety to lead the secondary and get some younger guys up to speed.
Garrett had a solid summer and that makes that keeps them into this contender status on what we believe could be a pretty even NECC big division, on the top end at least.
It helps too that the Railroaders have a pretty solid senior class of nearly 20 players and return quite a bit offensively, including four offensive linemen that will help connect an offense that will need to play deeper with enhanced experience. Aaden Lytle is back at quarterback after starting as a freshman last year. He is one that can be a constant for this program going forward. Lytle completed over 50 percent of his passes last season for 540 yards and ran for another 157 yards. Expectations will rise in both aspects as he has had time to learn how to read the field better and with a lot of rushing yards from 2020 to replace.
An OPS 7 v. 7 shootout title this summer shows Garrett has some ability to really get out and run against teams, but it will be interesting to see how it translates to a full game. Lytle will have solid targets in Zack Warfield, Cody Bickley and, of course, Trey Richards who averaged 10.4 yards per catch a season ago. Watch for Richards to be one of the area’s breakout performers this year really knowing how to use his length and speed to an advantage heading into his third season as a varsity starter. Robert Koskie will be expected to pick up some slack running the ball and replace at least some of the yardage lost in the graduation on Kolin Cope and Seth VanWagner (a combined 1,199 yards).
Mark William should get some touches at running back, but also will also be more crucial on the defensive side where he had a sack, interception and fumble recovery in 2020 and is the team’s second leading returner in tackles putting down 66 total tackles last season. Lukas Swager, an outside linebacker, too was high on that defensive list last year with 55 tackles and will be a stalwart of the senior class on defense.
Richards will get to flex his strengths and leadership on the defensive end at free safety, where he can be dangerous in getting into passing lanes and hit hard against opposing receivers. Warfield will also contribute in the pass stopping game at cornerback. The pair accounted for three of the team’s six interceptions last season with Warfield picking off two passes and recording four pass deflections.
West Noble Chargers
A 2-9 rebuilding season in 2020 was something that was a big change for a Charger team we had been used to terrorizing the top of the conference. The team went 0-8, blanked in the NECC Big Division before they were able to compile back to back wins. Expect that change, in ways, in 2021.
That starts with a heavy core of returners, something they were not able to boast very well going into last season. Leading the way is senior defensive end Braxton Pruitt, who probably didn’t get enough credit in 2020 due to his team’s record. Pruitt has been an integral and scary part of this West Noble defense since the second he stepped onto the field and his physicality is something that the Chargers can fall in line behind. The defense will also thrive with a solid defensive back core that includes seniors Kolby Knox, Jalen Gonzales and Randy Villanueva with Knox and Villanueva being fire starters at various points throughout last season.
Par of that trio will play both ways as many Chargers will. Knox is likely to be West Noble’s biggest receiving target while Gonzales will share the running game with Peter Bradley (who also plays linebacker). Bradley was a state finalist in track this past spring and can really move the needle. Seniors Lucas Baker and Zane Patrick will spend time on both the offensive and defensive ends with Patrick on the line and Baker as the team’s top linebacker where he will share duties with junior Zack Beers and sophomore Nolan Parks.
As much as West Noble returns quite a bit, look for offensive line newcomers Brady Shields (Center), Elisha Loonie and Cole Hagerman to be expected to play at a high level early. Sophomore Keegan Clark (DT) and Wes Hilbish (LB) will join the defensive side of the ball. Then there is the return of senior Julio Macias as the team’s kicker; Macias has the resume that says he could be the best kicker in the area so his return to the gridiron after not playing last season is a win for West Noble.
“We have a lot of varsity experience coming back, but our success will be determined by how well our younger kids progress early in the season,” said West Noble coach Monte Mawhorter. “Looking for people to step up and fill in major spots on the offense and defense.”
Can coach Ryan O’Shea make a jump in season two to get Lakeland back to a near .500 record? That is one of the biggest questions in the NECC Big Division, where the Lakers could mount some upsets if they fly too much under the radar. After getting a great win over West Noble, the Lakers closed out the season with a really heavy slate so did that help to strengthen some of the younger players that will return for 2021?
Now that we are away from the year where O’Shea was building his own culture for Lakeland, there are less excuses for how prepared the Lakers should be. Taking care of the ball is something that the Lakers are going to need to change after a 10 interception and 18 fumble (13 of those lost) season in 2021. That will start offensively in the hands of new quarterback Deion Marshall, a junior. Marshall threw just 18 passes last season in a back up role but with the top two receivers back from a season ago, there will be able to be some comfort for him sliding into that starting position under center. He can also be dynamic enough to take off with the football too much as graduated Colton Isaacs did last season for Lakeland.
On both sides of the ball, junior Owen Troyer has a real chance to be a speed threat at receiver and defensive back with enhanced touches; he did have a single interception last season. Thought most of the passing game should run through Cole Schiffli and Mark Burlew. Khameron Malaivanh (80 attempts, 330 yards before an injury) will return to run the ball, aided by Caleb Sellers.
Lakeland will lean on their line with 10 players who started at some point returning. Seniors Leo Munoz and Alex Pelham will be critical in that regard with fellow senior Burlew leading the linebacker corp as a two year starter that had 44 tackles a season ago.
Sophomore Cameron Riegling could be an impact player on the defensive end, expected to start at inside linebacker. Riegling will help lead a group that needs to clamp down on giving up 35 or more points in each of Lakeland’s eight losses last season.
Finley Hasselman, Angola
Hasselman knows how to win, he has been around it and engaged in success at Angola. Yes, on field is what matters and he will run the ball successfully there, but Hasselman will be a real asset in making sure that a championship mindset is more than just a hollow aspiration at Angola.
Braxton Pruitt, West Noble
Pruitt has seen some major ups and some depressing downs the lsat two seasons for the Chargers. He is tough as nails and may hit harder than anyone in the conference when he gets a chance. Pruitt may be too forgotten just because of West Noble’s record a year ago but make no mistake that he could actually be the biggest impact player in this division and on the right night, the biggest impact in all of the NECC. If West Noble is going to right the ship this seasons, a lot of it could be because of how Pruitt leads by example on Friday night.
Trey Richards, Garrett
It is hard not to like Richards’ upside as a playmaker. He has the right blend of flashy and “just get it done.” His speed and his hands should really separate him from a lot of guys, especially in this run heavy conference. If Richards can break away and his quarterback can get him the ball consistently, Garrett has a really unique weapon on their hands.
NECC BIG DIVISION PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
4. West Noble
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