New Nicolet head football coach Everett Jenkins and his offensive coordinator Drake Zortman have fond memories of their time as assistants at Homestead, where conference titles are routine, deep runs in the state playoffs expected and thoughts of state titles legitimate.
The pair have more modest expectations for their first full year formally in charge of the Knights program, a unit that hasn't had a playoff berth or league title since 1989 and which has routinely been viewed as cannon fodder for other area squads.
However, they want their players to start thinking about winning and putting in the work that will make that possible.
"We want to establish the program grades nine through 12 and then generate community support at all levels," Jenkins said. "That's what they do so well at Homestead. … I can't thank Coach (Dave) Keel enough for setting that (kind of) example. We'll try and emulate him as much as we can."
And the example is a good one, as the Highlanders are defending state champions. The Knights, with Jenkins as an associate head coach, were a deceptive 2-7 last season.
Yes, Zortman noted, the games with Homestead and Cedarburg were routs, but there were also three league games that the Knights lost by a scant 16 points combined. Three more league wins would have put them in the state playoffs.
That's a big difference from the past.
"We want the kids to pay attention to detail," Zortman said. "We want quality reps in every drill, every practice. We want them to wear their pads the right way and to get to practice on time. Everett has done a nice job of instilling that so far."
"There's a lot of basic detail to go over, but we're working our way up from ground zero."
Further helping the winning atmosphere, Jenkins and Zortman have brought in former Homestead all-state defensive lineman Ben Suran and put him in charge of that particular unit. Known for his production and physicality, Suran hopes to bring a level of physical play to the Knights lines that they haven't known in decades.
"He came in with drills already set up, and his relationship to the kids has been awesome," Jenkins said.
A dose of Suran-style nasty would help the Knights greatly when they open their season with a 7 p.m. Friday nonconference game at Pewaukee, which went 9-1 last season in winning the Woodland Conference.
Early results for the Homestead infusion process have been largely positive. The numbers (60-plus sophomores through seniors) are solid. On the discouraging side, a couple of key players, including returning quarterback Brian Huntsinger, an All-Suburban and All-State selection in baseball, have decided not to come out to focus on Division I collegiate opportunities on the diamond.
Among the leaders in the 17-man senior group are co-captains are senior lineman Ethan Peck, sophomore tight end/free safety Shane Wilson and senior running back/defensive back Lamar Johnson-Harris.
Sophomore Brandon Kappel is set to take over at quarterback with senior Reggie Dillingham is a promising fullback.
In short, Jenkins and Zortman want to win, but they're willing to be realistic.
"We had some nice spring and summer youth camps," Zortman said. "We shared ideas with people and hopefully laid a groundwork. … It's such a numbers game. It's hard to keep kids interested when they're struggling all the time.
"But we want to build some excitement around here."
It looks like Jenkins and Zortman's former employer (14-0 in 2008) won't skip a beat this season after their third straight trip to the WIAA state finals and their second state title in three seasons.
Just don't tell head football coach Dave Keel that, because when asked about the best thing that's gone on in early practices, he said, with only a trace of irony or humor: "The weather's been nice."
That's because the Highlanders will be looking at doing a vast rebuilding job on their nasty, high-powered defense that paved the way to the 13-11 championship game win over rival Arrowhead.
Four all-staters, including Division I recruit linemen Shelby Harris (Wisconsin) and Ben Gardner (Stanford) are gone. In fact, the entire Defensive line is gone. Homestead will build its defense around three returnees including senior All-Suburban and All-State linebacker Lucas Speaker. Senior linebacker Jason Willms and senior defensive back Brad Pelisek are the only other full-timers back in the fold.
Senior Spenser Levine saw some action in the secondary last season. Of the new lineman, senior all-conference basketball player John Laihinen has the most promise. Junior linebacker Andrew Debbink has a "motor that won't stop" Keel said.
On the offensive side, things look a little more upbeat, especially up front, as four starters, including senior All-Suburban guard Justin Barber, return. Other veterans include senior Brodie Brown, and juniors Max Vielmetti and Kyle Schober.
Senior back Bryan Bronaugh scored the game-winning touchdown in the title game and will get help from fellow senior backfield mates Steve Brookman and Shawn Brown.
Junior Matt Stern will try to step into the giant shoes that graduated All-Suburban, all-purpose selection Casey Barnes left at quarterback. Stern led the junior varsity to an unbeaten record last season.
And Stern will get help from playmaking senior wideouts Mike Collins (five TDs in the semifinal win over Middleton) and Coy Smith. Keel said special teams, which Barnes also did a lot of, are still up in the air.
The Highlanders will find out how good they are in a hurry, when they open with Wisconsin Valley champion D.C. Everest (9-1 last year) at home Friday at 7 p.m. Between Keel (3) and veteran Evergreens coach Wayne Steffenhagen (5), you can count a total of eight state titles.
"We're excited to open with that one," laughed Keel. "… This is a good way to get our feet wet."
Keel says that a veteran Cedarburg squad is the North Shore favorite this season. Homestead has won or shared the league title every year since 2001.
Whitefish Bay Blue Dukes
Talent and good health will have to make up for a lack of depth for the Blue Dukes this season, as they prepare to build on a 6-4 state playoff campaign of a year ago.
Wisconsin Southeastern District Coach of the Year Jim Tietjen will have his work cut out for him as he has just over 40 sophomores through seniors out this fall.
"We had a small sophomore class and a bunch of juniors, many of whom would have played JV, didn't come out," Tietjen said. The Blue Dukes looked good offensively, though they suffered a few nicks in the scrimmage with Milwaukee Hamilton, South Milwaukee and West Allis Hale on Aug. 20.
They will open at Waukesha West at 7 p.m. Friday.
Despite losing all-North Shore Conference quarterback Jimmy Sherburne to basketball and Princeton, the Blue Dukes look to not skip a beat offensively as junior Cal Ehrke will start in his place. Top backs include senior Brian Kroll, sophomore Deontaye Brown and sophomore Justin Alt.
Veteran linemen include senior center Ryan Grych and junior tackle Taylor Hoff and top wideouts will be senior Paul Davis and junior Jack Fagan.
The Blue Dukes will build defensively around Kroll, their best overall player, who will start at free safety (4.54 40 time). The line will be built around junior Garrett Demuth, who made a lot of plays in the scrimmage and senior Elric Erving. The top linebacker will be senior Viktor Gottlieb. Newcomers who will help include senior safety Joe Lucey and junior lineman Jack Beck.
All-world punter and kicker Will Hagerup is currently studying 15-plus Division I offers. His booming leg will try to win the field position battle for the Blue Dukes. He'll also play a little tight end, said Tietjen.
"These are great kids to be around," Tietjen said. "Sometimes last year we really had to get after them, but rarely do we have to do that now."
Milwaukee Washington Hall of Fame coach Greg Lehman will serve as one of Tietjen's assistants.
It's all about confidence for the Greyhounds as new coach Dave Mogensen builds on the 6-3 season that retired Hall of Fame coach Ron Davies put together in his final season in 2008.
"We're not going to be a pushover by any means," Mogensen said. "We have confidence, but the kids have to believe that last year was not a fluke."
To that end, the Greyhounds, who will open at home at 7 p.m. Friday against nonleague foe St. Francis, look like they're in the midst of building a program. They have 44 sophomores through seniors out including a very healthy 17 seniors.
Mogensen, who has had a number of stops on his prep coaching career, including Grafton, Milwaukee Hamilton and East Troy, and who also coaches the Wisconsin Wolfpack Indoor League team, will have the Greyhounds run a spread-style option offense and a flex defense.
Leaders in the senior class include two-way lineman Jack Slowly and wide receiver Maurice Baldwin.
Three candidates are currently vying for the quarterback's slot including senior Albert McFallin, junior Luke Strohm and sophomore Dante Giacobassi.
"The kids have been excellent so far," Mogensen said. "They like my style. I'm a little more relaxed and a little bit more of a players coach. … We also have 12 coaches in the entire program, including seven on varsity. Each position will have a coach."
Last year, the staff consisted of just three people.
Mogensen has also read the now famous book written a few years ago on the decline of the Shorewood program over the last three decades and he would like to make his stamp on reversing the trend. The Greyhounds are still probationary in the Midwest Classic Conference but will be eligible for the state playoffs next season.
Brown Deer Falcons
After success the previous few seasons, the Falcons had to take a deep breath last fall as the physically overmatched squad went 2-7 overall.
Coach Rob Green would like to reverse gears on that trend immediately.
"It's been going really good so far," he said. "… What we have going for us this year, are good skilled kids who have found their way to the weight room. They've been pretty dedicated."
And pretty young, too. The senior class has just nine players in it with more than 20 in the junior class. In fact, Green notes that overall numbers (65 freshmen through seniors) are down.
"We have a lot of talent, but as we all know, football's a pretty senior-laden game," he said.
Senior leaders on the group include linebacker/running back Lawrence Rabon, wide receiver/kicker/punter Danny Korpela, guard Trent Cybela and center Danny Kass.
Junior all-conference running back Chris Smith is back gaining more than 900 yards last season before injuries shortened his season. Talented junior Brett Youngbeck will take over at quarterback. The all-conference baseball player has come through the system and is looking good, Green said.
"He's pretty poised and is a smart young man," Green said. "He's big, strong and has a nice touch."
Other linemen include juniors Tory Dibbs (honorable mention all-conference) and Alex Williams.
On defense, second-team all-league choice junior Drew Jones will look to lead the way, along with senior linebackers Eric Seonbruchner and Rabon.
"We're fairly young, but we're looking forward to getting going," Green said. "We want to get off on the right foot and get back into the (state) playoffs."
The Falcons will host Watertown Luther Prep in their season opener at 7 p.m. Friday.
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