SAM FRICK: Eyeing the ACAC as league play begins

Heritage quarterback Kobe Meyer throws a pass during a game last season against Adams Central.

With the Allen County Athletic Conference kicking off league play tonight, I wanted to take a look at some of the storylines that will be ones to follow over the next seven weeks.

Let’s jump right into it.

1. AC, the best small-school team in the 260?

A lot of pressure has been mounted onto Adams Central, and for good reason. This is a team that has made it to the state finals in back-to-back seasons and when at full strength is a team that’s just as good and possibly even better than previous seasons

Over the last five years, the Jets are 60-9, a winning percentage of .870! To think the Jets can be just as good this year is why there are so many high expectations. But AC needs its health to be in good shape before the playoffs in October as Class 1A can get tricky.

But you gotta love the progression of Jack Hamilton at quarterback and the play of Keegan Bluhm, despite AC playing without one of their better offensive linemen in Zac Wurm due to injury.

Heritage coach Casey Kolkman gave AC praise this week, stating that the Jets are the type of program that plays football the right way because they play hard, they’re so fundamentally sounded and they tackle at an exceptional level. 

On paper, it feels like we are on another collision course with AC and Indianapolis Lutheran for a third-straight year in the state title game. But right now the focus is ACAC play. The Jets have won this conference four of the last six years.

2. Who’s the biggest threat to AC?

It’s too early to say who’s the most dangerous team for AC in the league, but on paper we are seeing a lot of interesting teams that are looking more and more impressive. 

This week, there isn’t a matchup more enticing on paper than Bluffton vs South Adams at Bluffton. Just think about it! Bluffton has never beaten SA in the Coach Brent Kunkel era, and the Tigers haven’t beaten the Starfires overall since 2015, when they had former Western Michigan standout and NFL player D’Wayne Eskridge. 

The Tigers have found a variety of different ways to play Bluffton football, whether it’s throwing the football, pounding the ball, special teams or simply by just playing strong defense. A lot of that success comes from a team that is very selfless thanks to their motto “Forget About Me, I Love You (F.A.M.I.LY.).” As Kunkel alluded to me, this is a big game in terms of impacting the ACAC standings, but his team needs to “stay in the moment.” 

“South Adams, along with Adams Central, have been the class of the ACAC since I have been the head coach at Bluffton,” said Kunkel. “They are so well coached. I have a ton of respect for Grant (Moser) and what his staff (at South Adams) has done year in and year out. They are going to be ready for us.”

South Adams is a team full of hard-nosed, resilient kids, per Kunkel. He and his team are expecting their best out of the Starfires tonight

Meanwhile, South Adams coach Grant Moser said going 2-0 to begin the campaign was crucial for gaining momentum entering a tough road in the ACAC race. Regarding Bluffton, Moser said that tonight is unquestionably his team’s toughest challenge yet in recent years against the Tigers. 

“They (Bluffton) really want to beat us because we have had their number lately,” said Moser. “That is just going to add fuel to the fire for them. It is their homecoming and we travel well, so I think it will be one of the best small school atmospheres in the state (on) Friday.”

As for Kunkel, he and his team knows this is a game everyone will have their eyes on. 

“We are going to have to approach the game like it is the most important game of our season, because this week it is. We are excited for the challenge!” said Kunkel. 

Meanwhile, this may be the best Heritage team since 2006. The Fairfield game in Week 2 was one that Kolkman admitted he was very nervous about because of how big and tough Fairfield’s front line is and how well-coached they are. But as he stated after the game, the talent of quarterback Kobe Meyer and the resilience of Heritage’s defense in holding Fairfield to no offensive touchdowns showcases just how scary the Patriots can be.

But a trap game at Woodlan tonight poses a threat. Kolkman calls a Woodlan a “very dangerous team,” and it’s a squad that’s so close to becoming a true contender in the ACAC. 

3. Could this be the best the ACAC has been in a decade?

It feels like nearly from top to bottom, everyone in this conference is good. It’s no longer just Adams Central, South Adams then everyone else, even though it’s still the Jets’ conference to lose. 

Heritage could be scary good, South Adams is still very much a contender and Bluffton is quietly a threat to win this conference. Even Jay County is off to its best start since 1996. Will the hype be met? We will find out starting tonight. 

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