Dave Colling had the luxury of watching Abe Clinch run Kearney Catholic's offense the past three seasons.
“He commanded the show,” the Stars' coach said.
Clinch was a three-year starter at quarterback, completing 59 percent of his passes for 3,680 yards in his prep career. A year ago, he threw for 1,677 yards, rushed for 504 and helped Kearney Catholic win its first 10 games before losing to Adams Central in the Class C-1 state quarterfinals.
Clinch now is playing for Fort Hays State. Thomas Connely is hoping to fill Clinch's shoes back in Kearney.
“Abe helped me a lot with my mechanics, throwing the ball. He taught me reads, stuff like that,” Connely said. “And he showed good leadership, so I know how to do that after watching him.”
Of course, it's not like Connely was watching from the sideline. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior was a two-way starter last season, rushing for 1,101 yards as a running back and helping anchor a stingy defense from his outside linebacker spot.
Connely also took some snaps at quarterback as Clinch's backup. In the 2011 Class C-2 state championship game, when the Stars lost 27-13 to David City Aquinas, Connely played quarterback most of the game after Clinch suffered a concussion late in the first half.
“Having played on one of the biggest stages will help me,” Connely said. “I've been working a lot with the receivers this summer. I'm comfortable with them, and I've improved a lot this summer on my throwing, which hasn't always been my strong suit.”
Colling expected Connely to compete in the preseason for the starting quarterback job with players like junior John Masker, but the coach knows what kind of athlete Connely is.
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After placing fifth at state wrestling two years in a row, Connely won the Class C 170-pound title in February. Earlier this summer, he played on a Kearney Runza baseball team that competed at the American Legion Class A state tournament.
“He's a strong kid, likes to hit. On offense, he runs the ball well, follows blockers well,” Colling said. “He's a smart kid. To lead our offense, that's going to help a bunch.”
Connely's experience will be critical as the Stars return only two offensive and three defensive starters. Last year's team had 12 seniors compared with seven this season. Five of last year's seniors are playing college football.
Center Nick Dowling (5-10, 205) is the only returning starter on either side of the line, but the Stars should have good size on their rebuilt units.
The return of junior Dennis Cabanting will be crucial. The 6-1, 270-pound Cabanting played three games as a sophomore before his season ended with a torn ACL and MCL, but Colling said he'll be one of the best linemen to come out of Kearney Catholic. He's already receiving looks from Division I programs.
Junior Nick Brungardt (6-4, 260) also will fill a spot up front.
“It will be really important to fill those shoes,” Connely said. “It doesn't matter how good you are in the backfield. If your line isn't there, you won't be able to do anything. Everything starts with the line. That's going to be the key to our success.
“Having confidence in your line helps you have confidence in yourself.”
Connely hopes Kearney Catholic's defense can match last year's performance.
The Stars shut out six opponents and allowed a total of 33 points in their first 10 games. They lost 28-7 to Adams Central in the quarterfinals.
“Our goal has been to stop the run and have a real tough defense,” said Connely, entering his third season as a defensive starter.
Seniors Jack Graham, a 6-0, 215-pound linebacker, and Blake Holtmeier, a 6-2, 200-pound safety, are the other returning defensive starters. Kearney Catholic's other seniors are tight end-defensive end Ben Clinch (6-3, 225), lineman Sam Moore (6-0, 165), split end Derrick Jackson (5-10, 165) and running back Garrett Dondlinger (6-0, 180).
“We lost a lot of really good players from last year, but we have younger guys stepping up, hitting the weight room hard,” Connely said. “I think those guys will be able to fill the shoes pretty well. They know what they need to do to help the team.”