Prep football photo: River Valley's Brett Nachreiner

Saint Croix Central's Luke Rohl tackles River Valley's Brett Nachreiner during the first half.

GREG DIXON, For the State Journal

AREA PREVIEWS

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Roberts returns: After being named to the Wisconsin State Journal Prep Zone’s All-Area team as a junior, defensive end Seth Roberts is back to lead the Johnson Creek Bluejays. The Bluejays went 6-4 last year, losing to conference rival Cambria-Friesland in the first round of the playoffs. But with Roberts back, as well as rushing and receiving threat Brent Berger, Johnson Creek could make some noise in the Trailways Small Conference.

Rebuilding River Valley: River Valley, which lost in the WIAA Division 4 state title game, will have to find a way to replace Mr. Do-It-All Elijah Alt, who graduated in the spring and is headed to play football at Upper Iowa University. The Blackhawks also lost top receiving threats Ryan Wickman and Derek Wedige. However, receiver Brett Nachreiner, who collected 46 receiving yards in the state title game, returns. River Valley will need the trio of Justin Yanke, Shane Liegel and Will Bergman to step up as both running backs and linebackers if the Blackhawks want to match last year’s success.

Deerfield looks to rise: Can second-year head coach Derek Sweger win his first game at Deerfield? Senior Noah Gjermo is a dynamic tailback and may be able to help Deerfield get a win this season, but the Trailways Small is loaded with good teams like Cambria-Friesland and Johnson Creek.

Heights chasing conference title: After going 7-2 in its first year of eight-man football, Wisconsin Heights will look to once again compete for the Great Eight conference title. Junior running back and linebacker Payton Flamme returns as the team’s top rusher and leading tackler. They’ve also started to develop a bit of a rivalry with nearby Madison Abundant Life/St. Ambrose. They play their Great 8 Conference game against the Challengers Saturday, Sept 9 in Wisconsin Heights.

New look at Abundant Life: The Madison Abundant Life/St. Ambrose Challengers will have a new look this fall after going 9-0 last season. Coach Chad Henning enters his first year as the head coach and star running back Obi Iwuagwu has graduated. However, quarterback Mike Rhatican returns to lead the offense after throwing for 2,012 yards last season. Running back Weston Wallace is another newcomer after being homeschooled in the past and coach Henning is “expecting big things from him.”

— Bobby Ehrlich

TEAM CAPSULES

SOUTHWEST WISCONSIN

DODGEVILLE

Coach: John Busch, first year.

Last year: 2-3 conference (fourth place); 5-4 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): Not reported.

Starters returning (offense/defense): Not reported.

The lowdown: Busch takes over a Dodgers program that just missed a playoff berth last year. The Dodgers return second-team all-Southwest Wisconsin Conference running back Zack Weber, although top receiver Josh Shepler has transferred to Mineral Point.

Around the Southwest Wisconsin: Veteran coach John Hoch’s Lancaster Flying Arrows are favored, led by quarterback Evan Straka (1,525 all-purpose yards) and workhorse running back Evan Gates (2,294 yards rushing) among 17 letterwinners. Platteville has 16 letterwinners back under new coach Ryley Bailey, and should be a top challenger along with River Valley.

RIVER VALLEY

Coach: Tim Eastlick, 15th year (83-58).

Conference: Southwest Wisconsin.

Last year: 4-1 conference (second place); 10-3 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 22/12.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 7/6.

The lowdown: The Blackhawks fell just short of the ultimate goal in 2016 losing 49-28 to St. Croix Central in the WIAA Division 4 state championship game. They also lost a slew of top talents to graduation, including do-it-all quarterback Elijah Alt (3,800 all-purpose yards). The good news is that two-way, first-team all-conference running back/linebacker Will Bergman returns to lead the Blackhawks’ spread offense on another chase for the playoffs. Also back is last year’s third-leading receiver, Brett Nachreiner (229 yards, 3 touchdowns). Running back Shane Liegel also returns and will get a look at quarterback this year, and three offensive linemen return.

SWAL

MINERAL POINT

Coach: Andy Palzkill, sixth year (28-21).

Last year: 3-3 conferenceourth place); 6-4 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 14/15.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 6/7.

The lowdown: The Pointers return many key contributors from 2016, including senior offensive linemen Eric Heisner (6-5, 3), Grant Sporle (6-2, 235), and Joey Dolphin (6-1, 275) — each of whom made first- or second-team all-conference last year. Sophomore quarterback Isaac Lindsey (6-3, 155) gained valuable experience a season ago and hopes to flourish under Mineral Point’s multiple-formation spread offense. He threw for 10 touchdowns as a freshman last year. The Pointers will run a 4-2-5 defense with multiple adjustments, featuring a strong crew of returnees. Receiver Josh Shepler (6-1, 160, senior) joins the team after transferring from Dodgeville, where he earned second-team all-Southwest Wisconsin Conference honors. Also,first-time player Bailey Lawinger (5-9, 160, senior, RB/LB) should contribute.

Around the SWAL: Darlington, which has won four consecutive WIAA Division 6 state runner-up trophies but faces key losses in skill positions, is the pick to repeat as league champion. Top pursuers should be Cuba City (led by 1,500-yard rusher Kordell Stillmunkes), Fennimore and Mineral Point.

SOUTH CENTRAL

WISCONSIN DELLS

Coach: Erik Rosholt, third year (1-17).

Last year: 0-5 conference (sixth place); 0-9 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 12/4.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 8/7.

The lowdown: After enduring a winless season in 2016, Wisconsin Dells has adopted the word “improvement” to encompass every aspect of its program. “We may not be in the running for a conference championship, (but) we intend to be competitive in every game,” Rosholt said. The spread-based offense will focus on the run, building around returning lineman Kevin Coughlin and running backs Kayleb Galloway and Carter McCloskey. The 3-5-3 defense depends on flexibility from players such as defensive back Darius Mackinnis, and linebackers John Pikula and Adam Brown. Back to the team and expected to contribute after at least one year away are Travis Hudack, Sabastian Kontaxis and Reid Marsich.

Around the South Central: The league is down to five teams, as Westfield has canceled its varsity football season. Nekoosa returns 1,000-yard passer Kyle Olson and top receiver A.J. Ruiz and is seen as the league favorite, followed by Wautoma (led by receiver Cade Peterson) and Mauston. Mauston must play at least its first two home games at Wisconsin Dells due to problems at its home field.

TRAILWAYS LARGE

PARDEEVILLE

Coach: Tyler Johnson, second year (4-5).

Last year: 2-4 in conference (fourth place); 4-5 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 16/8.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 7/8.

The lowdown: The Bulldogs underwent a great deal of changes last year, including a new head coach who introduced offensive and defensive schemes, and missed the WIAA postseason for the first time in 18 years after losing their final three games. With a year of adjustments under their belt and “a nice group of seniors that all gained valuable experience” returning to the fold, according to Johnson, Pardeeville is looking to make it back to the playoffs in 2017. One team strength is its powerful offensive line, which boasts four returning starters and three returning all-conference honorees (Nate Read, 6-1, 195; Klause Kilmer, 5-11, 285; and Jon Kamrath, 6-4, 175). What’s more, the offensive line added senior transfer Duncan Fliener (6-6, 210) from Rio. There will be a fresh face at the quarterback position, with converted first-team all-conference tight end Jacob Schommer (6-2, 215) taking on the role. Fliener and Schommer will anchor the defense while providing what Johnson expects will be a “great pass rush” from the edges. Another player to watch is senior Chase Balzer (6-1, 200), whom Johnson calls a “gritty middle linebacker that likes to hit people.”

Around the Trailways Large: Defending league champion is once again favored. The Hornets are led by first-team all-conference quarterback/defensive back Carson Clark (1,828 yards, 29 touchdowns), who will throw to returning first-team all-conference receivers Drew Bernhagen (945 yards, 18 TDs) and Austin Triggs (639 yards, 10 TDs). Top challengers should be Horicon/Hustisford, led by first-team all-league running back C.J. Brooks (830 yards) and 1,200-yard passer Hunter Nehls, along with Dodgeland and the Montello co-op.

TRAILWAYS SMALL

JOHNSON CREEK

Coach: Tim Wagner, 31st year (158-132).

Last year: 3-3 in conference (fourth place); 6-4 overall; lost, 26-0, to Cambria-Friesland in the first round of the WIAA Division 7 state playoffs.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): Not reported.

Starters returning (offense/defense): Not reported.

The lowdown: Wagner’s Bluejays made the WIAA playoffs last year with a .500 conference record, and return a pair of experienced running backs in Ryan Larson and Bret Berger. The two will run behind 6-4, 260-pound lineman Seth Roberts, an enforcer who earned first-team all-Trailways Small honors on both sides of the ball last season. Sophomore Justin Swanson earned all-conference honorable mention last year as both a defensive back and kick returner.

Around the Trailways Small: Three-time unbeaten (in league play) champion Cambria-Friesland is once again the favorite, led by two-way all-conference running back/defensive back Wesley Bancroft (1,128 yards rushing). Quarterback Luke Figol will lead Fall River’s pursuit of the Hilltoppers. Oshkosh Lourdes and Johnson Creek also could challenge.

DEERFIELD

Coach: Derek Sweger, second year (0-10).

Last year: 0-6 in conference (eighth place); 0-10 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 13/7.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 7/6.

The lowdown: Although Sweger suffered a rough first year as the Demons’ head coach, he’s optimistic that the team can make it to the WIAA playoffs this fall, “I believe that we can contend for a playoff spot. We have a talented group of skill position players, lead by Noah Gjermo, who I feel is the most talented skill position player in the conference,” Sweger said. Gjermo is a versatile quarterback who threw for 474 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another 559 yards and four touchdowns last year, earning second-team all-conference running back honors. The Demons rely upon a power ground game, and Sweger says he’s excited to see Ehren Ezzell, Hayden Pratt and Sylvester Ware with the ball in their hands. Defensively, the team is adjusting to a new 3-5 formation, in order to best utilize its size and athleticism. Nick Vander Grinten highlights the defensive front (9.5 sacks in 2016, most in the conference), and Logan Gesteland should be a menace at linebacker after converting from the offensive side of the ball during the offseason.

GREAT EIGHT (8-MAN)

MADISON ABUNDANT LIFE/ST. AMBROSE

Coach: Chad Henning, first year.

Last year: 6-0 in Great Eight South (first place), 9-0 overall; beat Prairie Farm, 40-34 in the WIAA Eight-Man Jamboree’s final game to claim the unofficial state championship.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 7/7.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 3/4.

The lowdown: After serving as defensive coordinator each of the past two seasons, Henning will step in as head coach. Last year was a perfect season for the Challengers, who held off Prairie Farm in the WIAA Jamboree to close out an undefeated year. Henning acknowledges the challenge he faces for this upcoming season, after losing seven letterwinners including the state’s top 8-man player, Obi Iwuagwu. “With last year being as exciting as it was, it will be hard to repeat that success,” Henning said. A great area of concern is the fact that the Challengers have only 15 players on the roster, but some key offensive returnees allow for dreams of a repeat success to take hold. Honorable mention all-state quarterback Mike Rhatican is returning for his junior season, and will enter the year as the favorite to win Offensive Player of the Year in the conference after throwing 31 touchdowns and over 2,000 yards in 2016. Henning says, “It's hard to believe he's only a junior, Mike has really put in the work this offseason and developed into a great leader.” Outside of the quarterback position, the Challengers are returning All-Conference offensive lineman Ashlen Chapin (6-3, 230) to go along with defensive talents Stephen Manke and Will Westerhoff, who will anchor the other side of the ball for the reigning state champions.

Around the Great Eight: With some conference realignment and non-WIAA member Watertown Maranatha Baptist canceling its varsity season, the Great Eight will have only one division and four members. Although Oakfield is picked to land atop the conference, led by senior receiver and defensive back Brandon Williams, each team in the Great Eight was hit hard by graduation, leading coaches to believe that whichever team can best incorporate its newcomers will challenge for the crown.

WISCONSIN HEIGHTS

Coach: Jeff Supernaw, second year (7-2).

Last year: 4-2 in Great Eight South (second place); 7-2 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 14/7.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 4/4.

The lowdown: Supernaw’s first year at the helm coincided with the school’s first year playing 8-man football, as the Vanguards were able to use a wealth of upperclassmen to take second in the conference. Although Wisconsin Heights brings back at least nine players with varsity experience, Supernaw stated that mixing in newcomers and returning letterman will be the difference.“If we take too long to gel and come together, we could be looking way up at Oakfield and Abundant Life from the bottom half of the standings,” he said. Key contributors coming back to the team are Alex Klaschcus, D.J. Geishirt and Payton Flamme. Klaschcus will anchor the offensive line after being named second-team all-conference last season, and Geishirt and Flamme are the top returning tacklers on defense.

— Austin Grade

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