SAM FRICK: Breaking down the NE8 title race

East Noble’s Dylan Krehl and Alex Brennan celebrate a touchdown in August 18’s win over Bishop Luers. (Photo by John Felts)

Much as I did last week with the ACAC, I wanted to look at some storylines entering the second week of Northeast Eight competition, particularly with the huge Leo-New Haven showdown looming on Friday.

Let’s jump right into it.

1. How much does Friday’s NH-Leo mean?

It’s way too early to assume that one game, much less in such a deep conference, is going to decide a conference championship. But at this rate, it does appear on paper that Leo and New Haven are the two best teams in the conference right now.

The key words being “right now.” 

When you look at these two teams, you have the dynamic performers on both sides led by New Haven’s Mylan Graham and Ajani Washington and Leo’s Brock Schott and Kaden Hurst. You have the running game from the Bulldogs’ Tre Bates and Leo’s Aidan Monds. And you have the quarterbacks, Leo’s Kylar Decker and New Haven’s Donavan Williams. 

The offense and defensive lines are stacked with talent across the board. Mason Knoch (who’s currently injured right now), Korin Harris, Charles Mcgrant, Riley Stewart, Jaxon Keller, Kamden Zeisloft, Dearious Carter, Lucas Sheron, Aiden Furnish, Malik Farrow, Chris Stewart, James Hardy IV and Aaron Hoffer, among others. 

One fact with New Haven is it has not allowed a sack yet this season, a testament to how much the New Haven front line has improved.

“They did a great job,” said Booher about his squad after last week’s rout of DeKalb. “The energy was awesome. Having a great crowd also helps. Our guys do awesome at playing disciplined football most of the time. That allows everyone to get their chance to shine. 

“When everyone does their assignment, it makes it tough on the other team.  They have to be able to defend the entire field on defense or attack the entire field on offense.”

This game will come down to which line can protect its quarterback, which QB can thrive under pressure, and, maybe the biggest question, which team can exploit opportunities on special teams. 

“This is a big week of practice for us as we prepare for a great opponent in New Haven,” said Leo coach Jason Doerffler. “We will have to take care of the ball offensively and avoid turnovers. It should be a great game and a great atmosphere come Friday night.” 

For New Haven, the team has the capabilities of being great, but can it have the consistency to perform in the big games?

“Our biggest area of improvement is getting the same confidence in special teams as we do in the other phases of the game,” said Booher. “We need (to) come in with confidence and energy to compete with a physical and talented team. Leo will be one of the toughest tests the guys have had this season, but they will be ready to battle.”

2. What should we make of Columbia City?

Look, I’m not here to doubt Columbia City. It’s just when the league is so competitive between four teams, you want to find areas that they stand out from one another. While watching film of the Eagles, they have the potential to be great again. 

Grayson Bradberry has been very efficient at quarterback, throwing for 269 yards with a 76 percent completion percentage, seven TD passes and zero picks. Coach Brett Fox has been pleased by his performance so far both as a QB and as a teammate.

“(Grayson) Bradberry is such a good leader,” said Fox. “He makes great decisions and isn’t overwhelmed with what it takes to be successful on a Friday night. The best thing for him was being a two-sport stud who played varsity baseball as a sophomore and shined as a great pitcher for us.”

Stratton Fuller continues to be one of the best all-around players in the entire NE8 and northeast Indiana. Another major contributor is senior James Getts. 

While the Eagles graduated depth at running back last year, Getts has embraced most of the opportunities in rushing for 149 yards with 5 touchdowns. With the player that Getts is, he simply wants to win for his teammates and community. 

“James Getts is an incredible player,” said Fox. “He does everything you want as a coach and just does his job. He isn’t looking for the limelight and simply does what is best for the team.”

While graduation did see the front line take a hit, CC hasn’t really shown any signs of slowing down so far. Seniors Ian Stahl and Noah McDevitt have been workhorses, while senior Cohen Payne has been a leader of that passing defense along with Fuller. Sophomore Sam Bean has been a stud at the offensive line position as well.

Where there is an anomaly with the Eagles has been the strength of schedule. Their opponents are a combined 1-8 this season, with their next opponent being a road trip south on S.R. 9 to face winless Huntington North. 

For the Eagles to succeed, it comes down to everyone continuing to stay committed to the process and trusting each other. 

“We preach ‘Every Man An Eagle (EMAE),’ and what that means is that every single person is important,” said Fox. “If all 11 guys on the field are doing their job then it enables us to be successful and in the best place to win.”

3. Are we overlooking East Noble?

It’s amazing how one year can change your outlook on a league. So far, the East Noble Knights are undoubtedly a better team than last year. The challenge is so are the majority of the conference contenders. So far, at least. 

East Noble was not its usual self in 2022, but in its defense, this was a very young team in several areas. This season, that same core is back, but with a couple additions out of the sophomore and junior classes. 

One significant returnee is senior quarterback Zander Brazel. Last week against Huntington North, Brazel was dazzling under the lights in Kendallville as he threw for 296 yards and became the eighth East Noble quarterback to throw for at least 3,000 career yards. When asked about the quarterback’s progression at the position, Coach Luke Amstutz was supportive.

“I think that last year, (Brazel) was not completely at fault with the struggles in the passing game,” said Amstutz. “He took a brunt of the criticism, but we were not very good at receiver last year, and those kids that are back have improved immensely. Pair that with an offensive line that has gotten a lot better and our ability to run the ball has improved.

“Zander has always been a great leader, and now he is able to move the ball around to different people with confidence.”

Brazel’s success can be traced back to stud targets in the passing game such as a healthy Alex Brennan (junior) at tight end, senior wide receiver Keegan Corbin, junior wide receiver Landon Swogger and sophomore wide receiver Mason Treesh, who’s also a rising basketball player. The backfield of Tyson Reinbold, Dylan Krehl and Michael Mosely gives the Knights more than enough weapons to overwhelm many defenses.

Up front, you have some very special players that just do not get nearly enough of the limelight because of how deep the conference is. Zack Leighty is one of the elite guards in the area and a fixture along the front. Junior Dylan Krehl plays everywhere on the field. On defense, he gets after players and shows a lot of heart. 

Junior Pace Agee is picking up the pace with his seven tackles for loss. Kobe Ritchie, Connor Leins, Jacob Ramey and Michael Mosley have been vital in creating havoc on opposing quarterbacks with a dose of physicality and relentlessness. And we have to mention the play out of sophomore Rylee Biddle, whose intrigue and talent is still a riddle for fans that don’t follow East Noble or the NE8. He has a lot of upside. 

It’s tempting to look ahead to that Week 5 matchup when the Knights host Leo, but East Noble cannot look past DeKalb, which will look to bounce back following a 48-28 loss at New Haven. 

“I feel as though, as long as we can limit big plays and take care of the ball we are going to have a chance to win,” said Amstutz about his team. “Our kids believe they can win every time they step on the field, no matter who they’re playing.”

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