World-Herald staff writer Stu Pospisil breaks down the Class A football season, including the top 10 teams, games and players to watch and more.
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Class A Top 10
1. Millard North (13-0 in 2012): Can the Mustangs repeat, given they'll have the same incredibly difficult schedule? They'll be in the mix, that's for sure. There's good experience and talent in the offensive line with returning senior starters Brandon VanderVorst (6-foot-1, 270 pounds) and Pete Bruening (6-0, 225) and backup Jake Haer (6-2, 295). All-Nebraska defensive back Clay Fisher (6-2, 215) shifts to quarterback for his senior year. Look for Adrrell Taylor, a 6-1, 200-pound junior, to do damage out of the backfield. He'll also be at outside linebacker with seniors Grant DeVries (6-0, 200) and John Curran (6-2, 215) at linebacker in the Mustangs' 4-2-5 defense. Avram Tynes (6-1, 175), without Fisher, is the only holdover in the secondary.
2. Millard West (7-4): The Wildcats bring more players back than usual for them, including all of their skill-position starters and half of the offensive and defensive lines. “Our junior class needs to be ready to contribute in order for us to make a run,” coach Kirk Peterson said. Ross Drwal (6-1, 195) is the incumbent quarterback, but fellow senior Zach Johnson can step in if it's decided to use Drwal more on defense. All-Nebraska wide receiver Skyler Monaghan (5-10, 175) had a breakout junior year. Defensive lineman Harrison Phillips (6-4, 250) is a Stanford recruit, Super Six member and state wrestling champion.
3. Omaha Creighton Prep (8-4): Tops as a pitch-catch combo are Super Six member Easton Stick (6-2, 190) at quarterback and RJ Urzendowski (6-0, 185) at receiver for the Junior Jays. The team's needs, coach Chris Nizzi said, are replacing last year's leadership and four linemen and showing defensive improvement. “Younger linemen are talented and can do the job,” he said. A better running game would take pressure off the passing attack.
4. Lincoln Southeast (9-2): Future Huskers and Super Six members DJ Foster (6-3, 305) and Luke Gifford (6-4, 205) will be on the field most of the time for the Knights, with Gifford expected to shift to quarterback from wide receiver. Foster, Fyn Anderson (a 6-3, 290-pound junior) and senior center Marshall Dean (5-11, 245) return to the offensive line. Foster and Gifford are two of the six returning starters on defense. Depth must be developed in the skill positions, coach Ryan Gottula said.
5. Omaha North (10-3): Some of the Metro's best juniors are in the Vikings' ship — All-Nebraska running back Calvin Strong (5-8, 175), All-Metro lineman Michael Decker (6-3, 275) and linebacker Jason Martin (5-7, 200), who led North in tackling last year. Either Payton Nelson or Dalton Willmore will replace three-year starter Zach Martin at quarterback. JaVaughn Perkins (6-1, 175), a senior with three state wrestling titles, excels in open-field tackling.
6. Millard South (9-3): A good starting point for the Patriots to reload is with third-year starting quarterback Anthony Cloyd, a 6-foot, 195-pound senior. There's some good size in the front line with senior Van Nelson (6-1, 230) and juniors Austin Kraft (6-4, 305) and Christian Jelinek (6-1, 255). Only two starters return on defense. Scott Botkin is a quality kicking specialist. “We will be inexperienced but talented,” coach Andy Means said.
7. Omaha Burke (7-4): To improve on their record from last year, the Bulldogs will have to knock off at least one of the top three teams in these ratings in the first five games. While Super Six member Trey Carr (5-11, 175) is a playmaker as a wide receiver and defensive back, it's a new quarterback who must connect with him in the pistol offense. The candidates are seniors Blake Emsick (6-2, 210), who could shift back to linebacker, and Alex Curbeam (6-3, 185). Logan Gier (5-10, 185) is a senior running back and Dalton Frahm (6-5, 270) is a pillar of the defensive front. Hayden Guy is an all-state kicker candidate after a perfect junior season on field goals.
8. Papillion-La Vista (5-5): Scoring never worried the Monarchs last year, but defense did. In their five-game losing streak to end the season, they gave up an average of six touchdowns a game. Seven starters return on that unit. On offense, it's still the Alec Ditoro show, but the senior quarterback will be breaking in three new receivers and a running back. Coach Jeff Govier said he wants to improve the run-pass balance and be more physical in the offensive line.
9. Omaha Westside (7-3): Most of the Warriors' experience and playmakers are on defense, where eight starters return. Strengths are the linebacking corps with seniors Matt Connelly (6-0, 210), Cody Cramer (5-11, 175) and Brady Novak (5-9, 185) and the secondary with senior Drew Fitzmorris (5-10, 185) at safety. Lane Yates, a 5-8, 185-pound senior who ran for 1,549 yards and 20 touchdowns, will work with a new quarterback and a reloaded offensive line.
10. Lincoln North Star (7-3): Led by third-year starting quarterback Brook Bolles (6-1, 170), the Navigators look capable of topping last year's win total. Austin Rose (5-11, 220) has racked up 2,600 rushing yards in two seasons and will run again behind a good-sized line that includes senior Matt Dietz (6-3, 300). The defense returns eight starters.
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Class A games worth seeing
Listed with matchup date and 2012 results.
Millard North at Millard South, Aug. 29, MN 12-10, 38-35: Patriots played last year's champions closer than anybody.
Lincoln Southeast at Millard West, Aug. 30, LSE 28-21: Opening night for Super Sixers DJ Foster, Luke Gifford and Harrison Phillips.
Omaha Burke at Omaha Creighton Prep, Aug. 30, CP 31-28 OT: Both teams still remember Prep's 22-point comeback to force OT.
Omaha Creighton Prep at Millard North, Sept. 13, MN 17-7: If both teams come out of the first two weeks 2-0, Buell Stadium will rock.
Lincoln Southwest at Omaha North, Sept. 20, N 24-20, 28-10: Should be the first four-quarter game for North's starters.
Lincoln Southeast at Lincoln Southwest, Sept. 27, LSE 21-14: Explain, please, why this is a 4:30 p.m. game for the second straight year?
Omaha Westside at Millard South, Sept. 27, MS 42-25: Winner should be the District 3 champion, even with a month of games left.
Millard North at Papillion-La Vista, Oct. 4, MN 49-42: Mustangs could be the first ranked opponent for Papio.
Kearney at Lincoln North Star, Oct. 18, K 36-21: A district title could be riding on this game.
Millard North at Omaha North, Oct. 25, MN 37-31, 17-14: Rematch of last year's state final.
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Returning Class A all-state players
WR Skyler Monaghan, Millard West, 5-10, 175, Sr.: Dangerous in open spaces. Has nearly 1,800 receiving yards in two years.
WR-DB RJ Urzendowski, Omaha Creighton Prep, 6-0, 185, Sr.: Was a 1,000-yard receiver with 13 touchdowns for the Junior Jays in 2012.
OL DJ Foster, Lincoln Southeast, 6-3, 305, Sr.: NU recruit excels in finishing blocks and in pass protection.
QB Alec Ditoro, Papillion-La Vista, 6-0, 180, Sr.: Third-year starter could rewrite state records for passing and total offense.
RB Calvin Strong, Omaha North, 5-8, 175, Jr.: Expectations remain high after a stellar sophomore season.
DL Harrison Phillips, Millard West, 6-4, 250, Sr.: Stanford recruit can play multiple positions in either line for the Wildcats.
WR-DB Trey Carr, Omaha Burke, 5-11, 175, Sr.: South Dakota State commit comes off a season with 52 catches, 5 INTs.
QB-DB Clay Fisher, Millard North, 6-2, 215, Sr.: Brings height and talent to the Mustangs' spotlight position on offense.
OTHERS TO WATCH THIS YEAR:
QB-FS: Luke Gifford, Lincoln Southeast, 6-4, 205, Sr.: Three-sport letterman and Husker recruit takes over as the Knights' QB.
QB Easton Stick, Omaha Creighton Prep, 6-2, 190, Sr.: Has a great skill set at quarterback; Akron has extended an offer.
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Additional Class A info
11: Consecutive winning seasons for Millard South, the most for a Class A school
“(It's) the SEC of Nebraska district football.” — New Bellevue West coach Mike Huffman, whose district opponents are Millard North, Omaha Burke, Omaha North and Papillion-La Vista.
District 1: Bellevue East, Millard West, Omaha Bryan, Omaha Central, Omaha Creighton Prep, Omaha Northwest
District 2: Bellevue West, Millard North, Omaha Burke, Omaha North, Papillion-La Vista
District 3: Millard South, Omaha Benson, Omaha South, Omaha Westside, Papillion-La Vista South
District 4: Fremont, Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln High, Lincoln North Star, North Platte
District 5: Lincoln East, Lincoln Northeast, Lincoln Pius X, Lincoln Southeast, Lincoln Southwest, Norfolk
FINAL 2012 RANKINGS
1. Millard North, 13-0, 453-241
2. Omaha North, 10-3, 500-216
3. Millard South, 9-3, 393-232
4. Lincoln Southeast, 9-2, 360-186
5. Millard West, 7-4, 298-186
6. Om. Creighton Prep, 8-4, 365-266
7. Omaha Burke, 7-4, 308-221
8. Omaha Westside, 7-3, 352-188
9. Omaha Central, 6-5, 298-183
10. Kearney, 8-2, 347-154