A lot could change in the NECC Small Division just because of graduation. A lot more could change just because of younger players from last season being more seasoned.
And some stuff, well you will see that some stuff is just going to stay the same.
Things stay the same in the NECC Small Division here because the Eastside Blazers aren’t going anywhere. Yes, gone is Outside the Huddle Player of the Year Laban Davis and we won’t even begin to act like that isn’t a major deal. Davis changed everything in every game, he was a skilled and highly capable competitor that nearly led the Blazers to the mountain top in Class 2A. Now that he is gone, as well as several other key pieces, we can all see if Eastside truly turned a major corner and it has become a perennial power in the NECC and lower classes.
Only two juniors that contributed a lot last season return, but boy did they ever contribute. Dane Sebert and Joey Eck were important on the line and will become even more critical this season as the Blazers try to get things going early. While those two will be fun to watch on the defensive side of the ball, Dakota Reed and Dax Holman return after being the top two players for the Blazers in tackles in 2021 with 88 and 86, respectively. So again, the cupboard is far from bare when you look at the high-level returners, especially those two ball-hawk linebackers. The Blazer defense is also bolstered in the defensive backfield with Carsen Jacobs and Briar Munsey (4 INT, 1 fumble recovery) returning, as well as senior Kyle Yoder.
“Defensively we return 6 out of 7 box players and 2 of four in our secondary. We are going to have to mature very quickly in the secondary and rely on our front seven early in the season to control the game,” said Eastside coach Todd Mason.
So how about that offense? Three linemen return, as does Holman (139 carries, 868 yards, 14 touchdowns) and that is a really great place to start. But you still have to replace essentially a generational talent that scored 53 touchdowns between passing and running the ball while also giving you 3,904 yards of offense. Wyatt Davis threw three passes last season and will see time behind center, but Jacobs will handle QB1 duties. Davis and Jacobs could also see time at receiver alongside Yoder, Thadden Feichter and EJ Miller. Jacobs’ 14 catches for 400 yards was the only major receiving of the group last season and ranked second on the team.
A total of 11 starters return for Churubusco on both sides of the ball, with five guys who have been varsity starters for multiple seasons. Not bad for a team which was already hot on Eastside’s heels a year ago amidst the Blazer dominance. All-Conference lineman Kaleb Oliver will lead three offensive line veterans that include Brandt Hurley and Bentley Kilgore. Their main objective? Give third-year starter Riley Buroff time to let loose and do his thing. Buroff has been Mr. Everything for Churubusco for some time now, throwing for 752 yards, running for 475 yards and compiling 18 offensive touchdowns last season among other defensive and special teams work. Buroff will again be the focal point of the offense as he was only out rushed by Wyatt Marks last season. Good news in Turtle Town? Marks is back too after running for 763 yards with four games of 100 or more rushing yards in 2021; that kind of balance is good for anyone.
Cullen Blake will also return to both sides of the ball after being used as an accessory on offense last season (12 rushes, 4 catches). He will be leaned on heavier offensively, but his All-Conference play at linebacker is what Churubusco will look to the most. Blake and fellow inside linebacker Weston Rinker tied for second on the team with 94 tackles each in 2021 and will both return in those positions this season, while Buroff and Kameron Rinker will be the main parts of the defensive backfield with Kaden Manth and Oliver returning along the line.
Who to watch as a key newcomer? Sophomore defensive back/running back Brayden Bianski could be fun to watch based on last name alone. Angelo Launiculli could also get some carries as he bolsters the linebacker group, while Misael Salazar will be a two-way lineman.
CENTRAL NOBLE COUGARS
An 8-3 record a year ago and a decent array of guys back make one wonder why the Cougars aren’t in the driver’s seat right now in the small division. Well, Will Hoover isn’t just someone you can replace easily. Hoover accounted for just a ton of yardage (131.6/game on the ground alone) and Central Noble also has to replace a lot of its secondary.
Tyler Shisler will return under center after throwing for 881 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Just a junior, Shisler has already shown a lot of strength running the offense and can take off too, rushing 77 times for 420 yards in 2021. With Hoover gone, the Cougars will lean on Devin Hiestand (13 rushes, 94 yards) in the run game, but watch for Shisler to throw the ball a bit more too, despite the fact that his top four targets from last season have graduated, leaving tight end Ethan Skinner and receivers Landen Vice and Drew Pliett to handle that load; Vice had the trio’s only reception, a six-yard pickup, last season. Pliett is a transfer but not one you will have found to contribute to his old school last fall anyway. Pliett has speed and his size and muscle additions have been impressive. He is one of the more interesting juniors in the NECC to watch.
A big benefit for the Cougars is an experienced line including two-way guys Riley Bremer, Tim Rawles, Coleman Meyer and Blake Weeks, all seniors, and Kyle Ellet, a junior. Meyer (50 tackles) and Rawles (36 tackles) are the top defensive returners for the Cougars. Sophomore Jacob Chenoweth will also be a two-way lineman. Ethan Skinner and Payton Boots also return to lead the linebackers after Skinner picked up a pair of sacks last season.
“After having an undersized D-Line the last few seasons we finally should have a very solid group up front. Three three-year starters just like the O-Line,” Central Noble coach Hayden Kilgore said. “Should be a big dominant group that is able to set the line of scrimmage each snap.”
PRAIRIE HEIGHTS PANTHERS
It had been eight years since the Panthers had a record as good as last year and that has to be a comfortable place for them to hope to continue to trend upward. Problem one though: a majority of the offense from a year ago, including the line, is gone and yardage may be hard to come byy for a younger group at the beginning of the season.
Jaden Daniels has the most returning yardage on the team, rushing for a team-best 583 yards last season on 54 carries with nine touchdowns along the way with 223 yards receiving. No other returner had more than 25 yards rushing or 110 yards receiving, so there are some holes for Prairie Heights to fill, including at quarterback after the graduation of Luke Severe. Trenton Daniels, who also plays defensive back, is a possibility at quarterback; he completed the one pass he threw last season for 38 yards. Sophomore Mac Armstrong could also see time under center.
Linebacker Phillip Sheets is one of the top defensive returners after having 38 tackles last season.
The Eagles could have an interesting impact on the NECC this year, different than last season. No, they aren’t going to run the table or anything, but some of their skill position players have now been playing varsity for two or three years, so you could really see them at the peak of their games this season. That means that Fremont, which didn’t keep things real close in seven losses last year, could make games tougher this time around.
Will Zak Pica be the guy that can kick-start success throwing the ball? It is no secret that the Eagles like to go to the air a bit and take some risks. After last season’s preseason quarterback battle ended, we only saw one guy with the ball in his hands much and Pica backed that player up. Now Pica is going to have to showcase if he can get the ball to a long, fairly athletic receiving corps that includes Wyatt Claxton, Gage Cope, Anthony Hard and Brendan Collins.
For the offense to be successful, the line has to be strong and this is still a fairly young group. That is something Fremont will need to build upon though if we look at the small sample size of scrimmages, including a successful one against Woodlan where Cope had two interceptions. The Eagles have a lot of build on even if it is younger. Pica and Claxton will also join the defensive backfield.
Dax Holman, Eastside
Dax is just a monster. There are few guys you wouldn’t want to seeing heading your way on either side of the ball and he is one of them. Whether Holman is running the ball or coming at ball carriers, he is a major physical threat and teams are really going to continue to struggle with his abilities.
Tyler Shisler, Central Noble
Shisler is one Blitz will be keeping his eye on all season. His sophomore campaign was solid, but in the next two years he could really develop into one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the NECC and maybe even the area. A lot of eyes should be on Shisler for that reason to see if his arm and his legs continue to develop at a high rate.
Wyatt Claxton, Fremont
While Fremont is small, Claxton could be mighty. He has to be considered the Eagles’ top target on offense and his ability to turn on the burners after a catch is something that could make or break Fremont wins versus Fremont losses.
NECC SMALL DIVISION PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
3. Central Noble
4. Prairie Heights
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