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Prep football preview: Graduation losses hit state runner-up Sun Prairie hard, leaving Big Eight race wide open

August 6, 2018 GMT

2017 STANDINGS

Conference, overall: Sun Prairie 9-0, 13-1; Middleton 8-1, 9-2; Madison West 7-2, 9-3; Verona 6-3, 6-4; Janesville Craig 4-5, 4-6; Madison La Follette 4-5, 4-6; Madison Memorial 4-5, 4-6; Beloit Memorial 2-7, 3-7; Janesville Parker 1-8, 1-9; Madison East 0-9, 0-9.

WIAA Division 1 playoffs: Sun Prairie lost to Kimberly, 27-7, in state championship game; Madison West advanced to quarterfinals; Middleton advanced to second round; Verona, Janesville Craig, Madison La Follette, Madison Memorial lost in first round.

ALL-CONFERENCE RETURNEES

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Dylan Bourne, sr., ILB, Verona; Patrick Horvath, sr., OL, Madison West; Ben Johnson, sr., OL, Sun Prairie; Hakeem McCullers, sr., ILB, Sun Prairie; Matthew Wedig, sr., OLB/P, Beloit Memorial.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Difficult to predict: The Big Eight takes on a wide-open look after Sun Prairie lost significant talent to graduation following its trip to the WIAA Division 1 state final last season. Middleton and Sun Prairie remain favorites, but eight teams received votes when coaches were asked to select which teams were expected to finish in the top three.

New arrangement: Longtime Middleton coach Tim Simon and offensive coordinator Jason Pertzborn will be co-coaches for the first time this season, with Pertzborn taking over as head coach in 2019 if all goes well this season, Middleton athletic director Bob Joers said. Simon didn’t want to lose Pertzborn to other coaching opportunities. Tom Cabalka remains the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator.

Familiar face: Michael Harris — who formerly coached at Madison La Follette from 2008 until January, 2014 — begins his first season as the Madison Memorial coach. Harris, a Memorial alumnae replaced Adam Smith.

Night to remember: The Beloit Memorial at Sun Prairie game Aug. 24 at Ashley Field will be “First Responders Night.” Sun Prairie plans to wear special “Sun Prairie Strong” uniforms that will honor those who responded to the July 10 explosion in downtown Sun Prairie. The blast killed Cory Barr, a captain in the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department. There will be an auction of some of the jerseys. Proceeds will go to the Sun Prairie relief fund and Barr’s family.

New looks: Among changes at conference venues, Mansfield Stadium has had ongoing construction, and renovations were being made to the lights and field. Madison Memorial and Madison West play home games at Mansfield. At Breitenbach Stadium, Middleton’s old turf was replaced with new turf by the company FieldTurf this summer, Joers said.

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FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Keeanu Benton, sr., 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, defensive lineman, Janesville Craig: Benton has committed to the University of Wisconsin. He’s considered the state’s top defensive line prospect in the class of 2019 by WisSports.net.

Jeremiah Jordan, sr., 6-2, 200, linebacker/running back, Madison Memorial: Jordan, recruited as a linebacker, has committed to Illinois State.

Cooper Nelson, sr., 6-5, 180, wide receiver, Sun Prairie: Nelson is considered the state’s top receiving prospect in the class of 2019 by WisSports.net. He led the Cardinals last season with 39 receptions for 794 yards and six touchdowns. His father, Scott Nelson, is a former UW standout at safety.

Matthew Wedig, sr., 6-4, 220, tight end/outside linebacker/punter, Beloit Memorial: The imposing Wedig is among the top prospects in the state as a punter and outside linebacker/edge rusher. He also plays tight end, receiver and long snapper on extra points. Wedig, the son of coach Rodney Wedig, averaged 39.3 yards on 41 punt attempts last fall, led the Purple Knights with 20 catches for 289 yards and five TDs and added 52 tackles and two sacks.

Dylan Bourne, sr., 6-3, 215, linebacker/offensive lineman, Verona: Bourne led the Wildcats with 105 tackles last season and is ranked among the top inside linebackers in the state.

COACHES’ FAVORITES

1. Middleton; 2. Sun Prairie; 3. Madison Memorial.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

BELOIT MEMORIAL

Coach: Rodney Wedig, fifth year (4-34); 24th overall (145-100).

Letter winners (returning/lost): 18/17.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 5/5.

The lowdown: The Purple Knights hope to build off last season, when their three victories marked the team’s most since 2001, including a Week 10 plus-one victory over Racine Park. Wedig hopes the Knights can reach the WIAA state playoffs for the first time since 1999, when Beloit won three playoff games to reached the Division 1 semifinals. Beloit Memorial has talented players, including receiver/tight end/punter/linebacker Matthew Wedig, defensive end Christian Winfield, running back Eric Bridges and linebacker Daryen Gaines. But overall team depth is a weakness. The Knights must replace three offensive line starters and their quarterback, with senior Gannon Rand and junior Shelvin Garrett potentially seeing time at QB in the pro-style offense. Outside linebacker Matthew Wedig, Winfield and inside backer Gaines lead the 3-4 defense.

JANESVILLE CRAIG

Coach: Adam Bunderson, second year (4-6); second year overall (4-6).

Letter winners (returning/lost): 28/16.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 2/7.

The lowdown: Bunderson believes another postseason appearance is realistic. Defensive lineman Keeanu Benton — a strong, athletic player who has orally committed to UW — and end Jacob Fieiras headline the defensive front in the Cougars’ 4-3 scheme. Benton and safety Tegan Christiansen were second-team all-conference performers last season. Linebackers Sam Smith and Jared Costello also return. Craig runs an option offense out of the Pistol, using numerous formations. The attack is expected to be led by quarterback Ben Coulter and center Asa Albrecht. Coulter is outstanding making reads in the option game, while Albrecht is sound completing assignments, Bunderson said.

JANESVILLE PARKER

Coach: Clayton Kreger, fourth year (9-20); fourth overall (9-20).

The lowdown: After struggling last season, the Vikings hope to rebound under Kreger, who also became the school’s athletic director in June. Parker’s squad looks to be inexperienced, but on the flip side, opportunities for lineup spots should abound. Graduated inside linebacker Kyle Fuller must be replaced. Casey Vanderlinden, Toby Garvoille, Brody Lippens and Jakob Barlass contributed last year as juniors. The Vikings face a tough opening stretch, playing Verona, rival Craig, Sun Prairie and Madison La Follette.

MADISON EAST

Coach: Jeremy Thornton, second year (0-9); second year overall (0-9).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 7/2.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 9/9.

The lowdown: Thornton said he believes last year’s young Purgolders are older, wiser and ready to embrace winning, led by Charles Dean and senior center and long snapper Tim Patten. Dean, a 6-foot, 210-pound senior linebacker, is expected to lead a defense that also features junior defensive backs Keonte Jones and Tyler Owen and senior defensive end/linebacker Thylas Moss Henderson. All four were honorable-mention all-conference selections last season. Thornton said sophomore Jevan Boyton — a 6-6, 185-pound sophomore receiver and honorable-mention all-conference selection last season — is ready to have a breakout season.

MADISON LA FOLLETTE

Coach: Scott Swanson, fifth year (25-17), fifth year overall (25-17).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 15/15.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 4/6.

The lowdown: Swanson is excited about this year’s team after the Lancers qualified for the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season a year ago. Quarterbacks Ben Probst and Ray Broughton and top running back Kayvion James-Ragland return to the pro-style shotgun offense, along with a deep receiving corps led by Jaden Nix and Charlie Kunkel. Three two-year starters need to be replaced along the offensive line, where Luke Vitale, Mason Saunders and Raymond Bailey are candidates to play. Outside linebacker James-Ragland, free safety Nix, defensive lineman Bailey and defensive end Gary Barnes lead the 4-2-5 defense.

MADISON MEMORIAL

Coach: Michael Harris, first year (0-0); seventh overall (20-35 at Madison La Follette).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 11/17.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 4/2.

The lowdown: Harris, who said the Spartans are working hard to come together as one team, takes over a group that other league coaches believe can move up the standings from a year ago. Senior linebacker Jeremiah Jordan is expected to be a mainstay of the Spartans’ 4-2-5 defense. Junior defensive back Chauncey Cannon, senior linebacker Sam Jessup and junior linebacker Kyle Murphy figure to be key defensive players. Junior quarterback Jason Ceniti returns, triggering the multiple-I formation offense. His receiving targets include seniors Cade Ellingson, Michael Cerniglia Jr., Will Sprout and Dryden Schaefer and junior Max Hoeser. Jordan and junior Kam Marshall, who also plays defensive back, should see time at tailback. Senior Cameron Bott and junior Tyson Nash are key offensive linemen.

MADISON WEST

Coach: Brad Murphy, third year (14-8); third year overall (14-8).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 10/15.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 1/4

The lowdown: The Regents last year had their best season since 1981 — their nine victories matching the second-best total in program history. Murphy said West will be extremely young this season after 17 seniors departed, but he still hopes the Regents can crack the upper half of the conference. West will rely on its sophomores; possibly 10 could start. The split-back shotgun offense features an option attack. Murphy said key contributors figure to be offensive lineman Carson Meyer, a returning starter; and transfers Dayne Armwald and Kelvin Opoku-Appoh, two running backs to watch. Sophomore defensive lineman Sammy Smith, second on the team in tackles last year, and Zach Mercier will lead the 4-3 defensive alignment.

MIDDLETON

Co-coaches: Tim Simon, 15th year (112-37); 15th overall (112-37); and Jason Pertzborn (first year).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 36/31.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 4/2.

The lowdown: With Simon overseeing the program and showing offensive coordinator Pertzborn the head-coaching ropes this season, the Cardinals need to replace 15 starters and will seek to fill offensive skill positions and their front seven on defense. The coaching staff has considerable numbers to look for replacements, with about 70 juniors and seniors, 40 sophomores and at least 45 freshmen out for football. Middleton has good size along the offensive and defensive lines. The offensive line figures to be headlined by senior Gavin Adler, a 5-8, 233-pound offensive lineman and second-team all-conference choice a year ago, and 6-4, 295-pound junior Clay Craker. Middleton likes to run plays from the Pro-I and spread formations. Bryce Carey, a 6-2 senior, was a second-team all-conference selection as a receiver last year. Honorable mention all-conference pick Kevin Meicher, a 5-9 senior defensive back, also returns, as do seniors Devin Jackson and Ortez Lockett.

SUN PRAIRIE

Coach: Brian Kaminski, 16th year (117-46); 16th overall (117-46).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 25/18.

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

The lowdown: Senior Richie Gilles, who saw some time last year as the backup, takes over at quarterback in the spread offense and has dynamic receivers in senior Cooper Nelson and junior Colin Schaefer. Senior Ben Johnson, a top state prospect who can play tackle or guard, is back to fortify the Cardinals’ offensive line for Kaminski, who likes to feature a power running game and down-the-field passing attack. On defense, the linebackers should be a strength in a 3-5 scheme. Hakeem McCullers, Ethan Ackley, Adam Radamacher and Jacob Powley return and are ready to resume Sun Prairie’s aggressive, fly-to-the-football defensive style. McCullers and Ackley are top linebacking prospects in the state. But defensive coordinator Tim Bass has holes to fill with the departure of numerous top-flight players, including Marty Strey, Josh Dinga, Kadon Kauppinen, Khalan Coleman and Caden White.

VERONA

Coach: Dave Richardson, 19th year (143-47), 27th overall (172-94).

Last year: 6-3 in conference; 6-4 overall (seeded fourth, lost to Wales Kettle Moraine 28-19 in first round of WIAA Division 1 playoffs).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 27/38.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 2/2.

The lowdown: The Wildcats have been a strong defensive team and Richardson hopes that identity continues this year led by 6-3, 215-pound senior linebacker Dylan Bourne, whom Richardson described as a dynamic player who propels the defense. Also significant to the 5-2 defense should be senior defensive end Ben Vandervest and junior defensive lineman Adam Vandervest. Verona’s pistol, Wing-T offense will feature returning junior receiver Aubrey Dawkins and junior tight end/H-back Haakon Anderson and newcomers Adam Vandervest (offensive lineman), Sam Wood (junior running back), Keegan Lindell (junior running back) and Adam Bekx (junior quarterback). Verona has a lot of players to replace and a small senior class, but Richardson believes the close-knit group plus a large junior class will help the Wildcats succeed.

GAMES TO WATCH

Aug. 17 — Sun Prairie at Madison Memorial; Madison West at Madison La Follette.

Aug. 24 — Middleton at Verona; Madison West at Madison East, Breese Stevens Field; Janesville Parker at Janesville Craig, Monterey Stadium.

Aug. 31 — Middleton at Madison West, Mansfield Stadium; Verona at Janesville Craig, Monterey Stadium.

Sept. 7 — Verona at Madison West, Mansfield Stadium; Madison Memorial at Middleton.

Sept. 14 — Sun Prairie at Verona; Janesville Craig at Madison La Follette; Madison West at Madison Memorial.

Sept. 21 — Madison La Follette at Sun Prairie, Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School; Beloit Memorial at Madison West, Mansfield Stadium.

Sept. 28 — Verona at Madison La Follette; Janesville Craig at Middleton.

Oct. 5 — Sun Prairie at Middleton; Madison La Follette at Madison East, Breese Stevens Field.

Oct. 12 — Middleton at Madison La Follette; Sun Prairie at Madison West, Mansfield Stadium.

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