ALL-CONFERENCE RETURNEES

Rock Valley ConferenceFirst team: Reed Farrington, OL and DL, Edgerton; Ben Wileman, LB, Edgerton; Skyler Gullickson, DB, Edgerton; Connor Frasier, DE, McFarland; Zach Gunderson, DL, McFarland; Sully Geske, WR, Evansville; Sam Dickerson, OL, Walworth Big Foot; Brett Wojciechowski, K, East Troy; John Skinner, DL, East Troy; Zack Burke, DB, East Troy; Hunter Boettcher, DL, Jefferson.

Trailways Small ConferenceFirst team: Reily Bonjour, WR, Deerfield; Justin Swanson, QB, Johnson Creek; Alex Garza, OL and DE, Johnson Creek; Sam Budig, DB, Johnson Creek; Teagan Prochnow, RB, Rio; Reid Spanbauer, OL, Oshkosh Lourdes; Tyler Johnson, DB, Oshkosh Lourdes; Caden Chier, OLB, Oshkosh Lourdes; Tyler Johnson, K, Oshkosh Lourdes; Gavin Meyers, P, Oshkosh Lourdes; Brady DeVries, DE, Randolph; Aidan Knudson, jr., Cambria-Friesland; Cade Burmania, KR, Cambria-Friesland.

Great Eight Conference — First team: Connor Herrling, OL, Wisconsin Heights; Javaun Mielke, RB, Oakfield; Grant Burbach, WR, Oakfield; Austin Gitter, OL, Oakfield; Ben Meiselwitz, OL, Elkhart Lake-Glenbeulah; Raistlin Lopez-Lloyd, LB, Elkhart Lake-Glenbeulah.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Zach Gunderson, 5-foot-7, 155 pounds, jr., DT, McFarland: Gunderson seems a bit undersized for the defensive trenches, yet he more than held his own last year, totaling 47 tackles, 27 solos, with five for loss and three sacks. Earned first-team all-Rock Valley honors.

Nicholas Hall, 5-10, 165, sr., WR/DB, McFarland: 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, sr., WR/DB, McFarland: “He is probably our best football player on the field,” McFarland coach Paul Ackley said. Caught a team-best 30 passes for 461 yards and seven TDs last year, had one interception on defense and earned second-team all-Rock Valley honors.

Reily Bonjour, 6-2, 170, jr., WR, Deerfield: Earned first-team all-Trailways Small Conference honors last year, catching 22 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns. “He is a tall, athletic target and has only scratched the surface of what he is capable of,” coach Derek Sweger said.

Connor Herrling, jr., OL/DL, Wisconsin Heights: Earned first-team all-Great Eight honors while leading an offensive line that helped the Demons average almost 200 yards rushing and 150 yards passing per game. Also ranked sixth on the team with 42 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

First step’s a doozy: Edgerton will face an immediate test in its bid to challenge for the Rock Valley Conference title, facing defending league champion McFarland in the opener on Friday, Aug. 23. The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. in McFarland. “Our first game… should answer a lot of questions,” Edgerton coach Mike Gregory said. McFarland won last year’s opener by a wild score of 57-34, en route to a 9-1 season, but Edgerton didn’t lose again until the quarterfinals of the WIAA state playoffs.

Deerfield has the hookup: Despite a 1-8 finish last year, Deerfield coach Derek Sweger is excited about the return of last year’s top quarterback, senior Tyler Haak, and top receiver, junior Riley Bonjour. Haak earned honorable mention all-Trailways Small honors last year, throwing for 828 yards and seven touchdowns and running for 538 yards and six scores. Bonjour caught 22 passes for 318 yards and four TDs.

Eight-player changes: Wisconsin Heights is the only area school playing eight-player football this fall, after the Vanguards tied for the Great Eight Conference title last year. Madison Abundant Life has called off its 2019 season due to lack of numbers. Belmont also has joined the 8-player ranks this fall, as an independent, and the sport is expected to add teams — around the region and elsewhere — in coming years.

COACHES’ FAVORITES

Rock Valley: McFarland, Edgerton, Jefferson, Beloit Turner.

Trailways Small: Oshkosh Lourdes, Johnson Creek, Cambria-Friesland.

Great 8: Oakfield.

AROUND THE AREA

McFarland Spartans

Conference: Rock Valley.

Coach: Paul Ackley, 15th year (70-67).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 16/19.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 2/6.

The lowdown: McFarland used an all-but-unstoppable offense last year to emerge from a tightly packed Rock Valley field to go undefeated. McFarland scored 42 or more points in seven of nine regular-season games and averaged 42.1 points in league play. But the Spartans struggled late in their first-round playoff game and lost to Pewaukee, 22-21. Standout quarterback Derek Schwarting has graduated, but the Spartans return a number of players who earned all-Rock Valley mention last year. The offense will feature three second-team all-league performers in running back Jeremiah Price-Johnson, wide receiver Nicholas Hall and offensive lineman Bryce Thompson. Six starters return on defense, including first-team all-league defensive linemen Zach Gunderson and Connor Frasier, second-team defensive end Xavier Schreiber and defensive backs Vivek Tara (second team) and Cam Schaaf (honorable mention).

Edgerton Crimson Tide

Conference: Rock Valley.

Coach: Mike Gregory, 21st year (84-90).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 20/11.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 6/5.

The lowdown: Gregory is looking forward to a big year from a Crimson Tide lineup that features 18 seniors, back from a team that went 10-2 last year and advanced to the WIAA Division 3 state quarterfinals. The high-powered offense averaged 35 points per game last year and returns its top receiver (Skyler Gullickson, 39 catches for 590 yards and six TDs), and three starting linemen in center Bryce Tate and guard Ben Wileman (both received recognition as all-Rock Valley players last year). Junior Drew Hanson will step in at quarterback, replacing 1,917-yard rusher Jaden Johnson. The 4-4 defense returns six starters, led by all-Rock Valley pick Wileman (118 tackles, seven for loss, two sacks). The entire defensive secondary returns, led by all-conference cornerback Gullickson, but three linebackers must be replaced. Ismael Diaz will return as kicker after playing only soccer since ninth grade. Gregory said he made a 47-yard field goal as an eighth-grader.

Deerfield Demons

Conference: Trailways Small.

Coach: Derek Sweger, fourth year (5-24).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 23/6.

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

The lowdown: Sweger is excited about the future of the Demons’ program, starting with this year. “We were painfully young last year; over 70 percent of (the) program was freshmen and sophomores,” Sweger said. “Many of those younger kids took meaningful varsity snaps, making them experienced varsity football players.” Forty athletes have signed up for football this fall. Sweger is switching to use a two-running back/three-wide receiver formation this year, “taking advantage of some athletes we have,” Sweger said. Tyler Haak is a four-year starter at quarterback, and Sweger believes he will become one of the league’s top players this year after throwing for 828 yards and seven scores last year. Receiver Reily Bonjour earned first-team all-conference honors as a sophomore last year. The 3-5 defense needs to reduce the number of points allowed, and will build around junior linebacker Sam Vander Grinten, who was in the top five in tackles in the league last year with 79. Haak and Bonjour will play in the defensive backfield. Sweger said a playoff berth is not out of the question for the Demons.

Wisconsin Heights Vanguards

Conference: Great 8 (eight-player football).

Coach: Trevor Steiner, first year.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 10/9.

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

The lowdown: The Vanguards won the Great Eight Conference title last year, but changed coaches in the offseason and “we have graduated major contributors from all phases of the game,” said Steiner, a product of Darlington High School and UW-Platteville. However, Heights returns a solid and experienced front line, led by Connor Herrling and Dakota Lueck. The quarterback spot is wide open, and there are new faces to fill in the running back and receiver spots. On defense, Herrling, Jack Fields and Ace Ayers will be key contributors, though the linebacker corps will have to develop quickly. Steiner believes Heights can be in the talk for the conference title, but picks Oakfield as the favorite.

Bucky!

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Wisconsin State Journal prep sports editor Art Kabelowsky has traversed the state to cover sports while working for daily papers in Fort Atkinson, Racine, La Crosse, Milwaukee and Baraboo.