One thing you can bank on in the Northeast 8 Conference is a reliance on winning tight games. Last year, we saw Leo be the benefactor in the championship race, but each fall there are a lot of fun, close contests – with some super-low scoring and others in which the defenses take turns getting torched.
Expect more of that in 2022. But which team has enough to put it over the top?
Is it comfort at Norwell heading into the season or nerves? We will soon find out.
The Knights return a lot of guys and expectations are clearly high from everyone both externally and internally. So does that make this group confident or nervous? There certainly is a lot to be confident about, starting with the return of Luke Graft, who was arguably the biggest breakout story in northeast Indiana last fall. Graft has been able to contribute his entire career, but his visibility has never been higher than it is going into his senior season after rushing for 1,721 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2021.
Even better, Norwell is loaded elsewhere with classmate Jon Colbert, who ran for 1,044 yards last season. The rushing attack for the Knights should be on point, but Norwell can sling it too; Lleyton Bailey is back after throwing for 772 yards and nine touchdowns on 55 completions last season. Bailey brings back three receivers with a solid year under their belts in Cade Shelton (8 Receptions, 212 yards), Cohen Bailey (13 Receptions, 214 yards) and Kline Neuenschwander (7 receptions, 124 yards). Norwell returns three starters along the offensive line with three-year starter Brody Bolyn leading the way at guard; center Ayden Billiard and tackle Kyle Zeddis also return, while Tyler Luther and Logan Cotton will join the line. If you counted right, yes that is eight offensive starters returning.
If that wasn’t good enough, Norwell returns nine players on defense. That starts with a lot of guys who are going to be playing on both sides of the football, but certainly doesn’t end there. The defensive line sees Trey Bodenheimer and Bolyn (41 tackles, 3 sacks) both return, while Norwell has three important linebackers back – Aydan Rusu (68 tackles, 3 sacks), Drew Ringger (35 tackles) and Graft (65 tackles). Colbert (47 tackles), Shelton (43 tackles) and Neuenschwander (19 tackles) all return to bolster the secondary, where Norwell should add sophomore Drew Graft. Three of these returners have held starting positions for a long time with Bolyn and Luke Graft heading into their fourth year as defensive starters and Colbert his third. This is big for a defense that gave up more than 18 points in a game just twice last season and went 11-0 when holding teams to that 18 or less mark.
Bolyn (38.77 yards per punt) and Austin DeLeon (4/5 FGs, 31/33 PATs) will also return to special teams positions, as does two-year long snapper Trace Moser.
“For us to have a successful season, we will need to avoid injuries and have some younger players take on larger roles than what they have had in the past. We will need to be able to run the football and stop the run consistently,” Norwell coach Josh Gerber said.
EAST NOBLE KNIGHTS
Ten starters are back for an East Noble program which may have the argument that it is the most consistent team in the conference, even as it battles Leo most years atop the league.
A key returning piece is Zander Brazel who will be expected to up his game again this season as East Noble won’t have a star running back (to begin the season) to lead the way. Brazel threw for 1,209 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and will have just one returning target in junior classmate Keegin Corbin.
Senior Trevor Marcellus, junior David Sturdivant and sophomore Logan Hatton will all try to get time in too as Brazel targets, while Trevor Conley will also be in the mix as a returning tight end. East Noble’s balance has always suited it though and will require some new names to take over running the ball behind a pretty established line that returns three different three-year starters Easton Brown at center, Nate Terry at guard and All-NE8 performer Zack Leighty at tackle.
Michael Mosley has the most career carries with 20 for 220 yards in 2021, followed by Tyson Reinbold and his four carries for 74 yards. Damon Bentley is another face we could see out of the backfield..
Brown and Leighty return along the defensive line as well, bolstered by Tyrin Parks, Ashton Fuller and Mosley. Bentley (61 tackles, 1 sack, 3 fumble recoveries) and Conley (21 tackles, 1 sack) join Dylan Krehl as experienced linebackers alongside Conner Liens while the secondary sees some changes, though Cody Biddle and Corbin both return with sophomore Logan Hatton looking to make some waves.
“This team will be talented, but in experienced. If our young players can fill in key spots, we will continue
to be in very good shape,” said East Noble coach Luke Amstutz.
Things have certainly changed at Leo as the school replaces a coach which led them to winning season after winning season for 15 years. Jason Doerffler is now in with the Lions and makes them one of the area’s most intriguing teams. How will they change? How will they stay the same? You don’t often see coaches go from the SAC to another area conference, so Doerffler’s presence alone opens up a lot of questions and excitement.
Excitement also comes in the form of Leo’s traditional work in the run game. Part of the three (or more) headed run monster is gone, but Ethan Crawford (488 yards rushing, 9 touchdowns) is back after a solid junior season. Max Loeffler (181 yards) and Brett Fuller (196 yards), who both saw time rushing last season in blowouts, should also contribute on the ground, as could junior Taz Lantz.
One thing Leo has done on and off (mostly off) in previous seasons is throw the ball, something that has seemed to be a point of contention outside of the program. Kylar Decker takes over those duties at QB with Jake Patton, Kamden Zeisloft (30 yards receiving), Brock Schott (44 yards receiving) and Crawford emerging as targets in the preseason.
Collin Butler and Truman Wirtz are back as two highly-touted two-way linemen, joined on both sides of the football by Lucas Sheron. As strong as Leo’s run game has been, the Lions are always traditionally big up front and that should continue. Riley Stewart is another name to keep an eye on on the offensive end while Aiden Furnish and Schott will see action at tight end.
Defensively, the front is strong, but the linebacker corps is the strength, led by leading tackler Alex Holcomb (75.5 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception). Joining Holcomb at linebacker will be Drew Baker (51.5 tackles, 1 interception), Crawford (48.5 tackles), Fuller and Lantz while Loeffler (21 tackles), Zeisloft (1. interception) and Patton will head up the secondary with a couple of fresher faces in sophomores Landin Hoeppner and Lucas Collins.
“We feel good about what we have returning at key positions in terms of talent and leadership. We will rely heavily on our seniors to lead us throughout the season,” Doerffler said. “We feel that our defense can be very good, especially up front and at the linebacker position. We need continued growth on the offensive side of the ball. As is always the case we will have to play great defense, be solid in the special teams, and be able to run the football efficiently in order to be successful this season.”
The building that DeKalb has done over the last two seasons could pay off in 2021 as the Barons could be on the cusp of breaking out. It helps that Coach Seth Wilcox has had time to develop Tegan Irk, who will head into his third season as the starting quarterback. Irk has been a major fire starter at points in his career and threw for 1,506 yards and 19 touchdowns a season ago.
Irk may be one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the area going into this season, but underrate him at your risk. He has major targets returning, including receivers Donnie Wiley (36 receptions, 536 yards and 9 touchdowns) and Logan Montoya while tight end Derek Overbay (27 receptions, 340 yards) has been drawing rave local reviews; junior Dan Mahoney will also line up wide.
Irk awill be well protected by three returning offensive linemen in Haiden Lockwood, Wyatt Birch and Blayde King; junior Jake Armstrong will also see time along the line on both sides of the ball. With Irk (171 rushing yards) as the leading returning rusher, look for sophomore Graham Blythe to take more handoffs this season.
DeKalb has six defensive starters back to show that depth of experience isn’t just on the offensive side. Guillermo Camarena and Liam Marzolf return up front with well touted safety Quentin Penrod (55 tackles, 1 interception) and Montoya (at cornerback) returning in the secondary. Sophomore Nic Ley (49 tackles) also returns to the defense and is able to play multiple spots to benefit the Barons as King (50 tackles, 4 sacks) is also back at linebacker. The defense should be boosted by Blythe at linebacker, Armstrong along the D-line and a pair of senior cornerbacks in Mason Reynolds and Tucker Haupert.
“One of our overarching strengths for our team this season is the experience that we are bringing back,” Wilcox said. “We were a very young team last season in a conference that was senior heavy. We took our lumps in a lot of ways last year, but that experience helped a lot of young guys grow up quickly last season.
“This senior class is also showing great leadership. They are understanding that in order to be a great leader you have to serve your teammates. They are great encouragers and have stayed after to help freshmen get up to speed quickly.”
NEW HAVEN BULLDOGS
Does New Haven’s success start and end with Mylan Graham? Well it certainly starts there as Graham (720 yards receiving, 17 yards/catch) has been the area’s biggest breakout player of the offseason as he garners loads of Division I offers from high-caliber programs. Graham will share the offensive skill position placement with tight end James Hardy IV (75 yards receiving) and running back Tre Bates (306 yards rushing). For the first time in a long time, the Bulldogs make a change at quarterback after the graduation of Jakar Williams. Now, Donovan Williams will take over the QB1 for the Bulldogs behind a line that returns three starters: Mason Crum, Colin Wickliffe and Mason Knoch.
Defensively, New Haven returns just one lineman in Jordan Dewalt (56 tackles, 3 sacks), but also brings back All-NE8 honorable mention inside linebacker Chris Stewart (30 tackles). Dazshon Ware will work on the defensive front, while Stewart will be joined at linebacker by Korin Harris.
Senior Jay Mares will be one to watch in the defensive backfield.
Speed could be a factor in New Haven’s favor as it gets things in motion. There is a lot to replace for the Bulldogs, who will lean on younger players to step up quickly. But up top, Coach Kyle Booher says that the team has good senior leadership and that does, in fact, go a long way.
COLUMBIA CITY EAGLES
While we talk a lot about returning experience meaning a ton, that experience combined with a good and hopefully large senior class is much more beneficial. Columbia City will send 23 seniors out on the field this year, a number that very few teams can replicate. What we don’t know yet is exactly what the offense will look like without Greg Bolt under center slinging passes down the field, although senior Colten Pieper may be the guy.
But the Eagles are far from empty offensively, especially because of two hard chargers in running back Ethan Sievers (1,057 yards, 9 touchdowns) and fullback Josh Arntz (152 yards), with a couple more returners there to give the running game depth in James Getts (324 yards) and Ian Stahl.
When Columbia City does decide to throw the ball, receiver Stratton Fuller (334 yards receiving, 7 touchdowns) and tight end Peyton Shearer (294 yards) will be ready to be involved as they were the top two receivers last season; Concordia transfer Cohen Payne will add a different dynamic on offense as well. Jack Malley returns to lead the O-line as a three year starter alongside two-year starter AJ Spencer as they are joined by Joel Yager, Landon Timm, Ben Vogely and Quinn Hesting.
Defensively, the Eagles have some returning strength up front, but behind them are some of the conference’s heaviest hitters. Arntz (63 tackles, 6 interceptions), and Dominic Chacon (42 tackles, 1 sack) can be terrors at linebacker while Fuller, Stahl and Martin Smith (23 tackles) return in the secondary that will also add in Payne. That front line is nothing to snub your nose at, again led by Malley and featuring returners Easton Carnahan (29 tackles, 1 sack), Riley Tucker (22 tackles) and Cameron Hyser as well as new additions in Yager and Timm
“We have a lot of experience coming back and we want to be able to lean on that experience,” Columbia City coach Brett Fox said. “We need to be more aggressive; we have to look to inflict punishment on others with how we play.’
HUNTINGTON NORTH VIKINGS
The Vikings have laid some ground work in their first three seasons under Coach Bob Prescott and coming into this season return six starters on each side of the ball. That may bode well as Huntington North is looking to shrug off a 2-8 campaign in which it was able to put up points but rarely slow opponents down.,
The offense was making some headway and will look to continue to do so with junior Ian Wiley the projected Week 1 starter at quarterback. While he is fresh to the lineup, there is over 1,000 yards rushing back with Noah Wagner (570 rushing yards), Luke Teusch (417 yards) and Nate Elliott (92 yards). They will run behind an all-veteran offensive line, each with a year of starting varsity experience. The Vikings return center Ben Ramsey, guards Silas Updike and Tyler Gradeless, as well as tackles Andrew Szelis and Coy Pefley. While Huntington North is known for running the ball, if the aerial game has any success it will come with a pair of sophomores in Paul Carter and Cameron Spencer at wideout.
The secondary could be a major strength, returning Colt Hacker, Teusch and Wagner. Updike is the only returner to the line, but both Josh Hill and Elliott are back to lead the linebacker group that could see a deeper rotation that includes senior Sam Close. Elijah Wiggins, Bradley Resntschler, Aden Kalhoefer, Pefley and Szelis will also see time along the defensive line.
“We must continue to make gains in strength, commitment, desire, and relationships. We have to develop fortitude in every player. We need to continue to improve our play with tremendous energy, intensity, focus, and execution,” Prescott said.
Bellmont is still building depth and comfort in the program heading into Year 3 under alum Nick Hall as the head coach. The Braves got back into the win column last year against DeKalb and had several really nice offensive games in defeat, including 35 points against Columbia City and 42 in a sectional loss to Oak Hill.
There are plenty of positives for a program which has been fighting for even footing for a while now. The Braves return a lot of kids who were playing big roles as sophomores, but they also have some big shoes to fill after the graduation of top players Jamison Rumple and John Ulman.
Offensively, Bellmont will rely on its line and run game, at least early on. Isaac Bodkins returns for his senior season after rushing for 735 yards and 10 touchdowns on 188 carries last season. Aidan Ford had limited carries last year, but he and Aiden Miller could share the run game with Bodkins. Bellmont will have to break in a new quarterback with junior Aidan Faurote. With last season’s top returning receiver gone, Job Hoffman will have to take over the role along withReid Sinclair and Mason Lengerich assuming some duties as well.
Dylan Velez (26 tackles, 2 sacks) Braylon Braun and Cole Mendez return to both sides of the line. Their experience on each side could prove valuable. Peyton Lengerich will also jump in on playing both ways on the lines. Ford (21 tackles) will be back at linebacker with Hoffman (30 tackles) and Miller (14 tackles) returning to the secondary. Bellmont also returns a highly consistent kicker in junior Sean Boyle, who was 25/26 on PATs and hit his lone field goal attempt last season. Sinclair will add to the defense at linebacker, as will Ivan Vergara with Mason Lengerich seeing an uptick of playing time at defensive back.
“We broke a long losing streak last year, so these kids have tasted what it feels like to win a game. They’ve been preparing for this upcoming season since November,” Hall said. “At one point last year we were playing 7-8 sophomores at a time on offense and defense. We will be looking for those juniors to really step it up this year.”
Mylan Graham, New Haven
Graham went from a high-level area talent in 2021 to now being the top recruited player in the Fort Wayne area. His recruitment has exploded as Notre Dame, Tennessee, Alabama and others have joined the quest to land the Class of 2023 star. Graham can be a game changer and even though teams have and will continue to try to avoid him, his speed and grit will make it hard as he is likely in on every play that comes anywhere near him on either side of the ball.
Zander Brazel, East Noble
The Knights are right there in the thick of it again and Brazel is a big reason why. He has had to feel out his spots but now is expected to be one of the top signal callers in the area. Brazel makes tough reads and has only improved every time he has taken the field, so he could have another big leap.
Luke Graft, Norwell
As Norwell challenged in the NE8 in 2021, it was largely because of Graft’s run game and how he churns and churns his legs after contact. Graft is a big yardage back that makes good cuts and is extremely hard to take down. He is just as good on defense as well.
NE8 PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
2. East Noble
5. New Haven
6. Columbia City
7. Huntington North
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