Standings (conference, overall): Clinton 9-0, 11-1; Jefferson 8-1, 8-2; Beloit Turner 7-2, 7-3; Evansville/Albany 6-3, 6-4; East Troy 5-4, 5-5; Walworth Big Foot 3-6, 3-6; Edgerton 2-7, 2-7; McFarland 2-7, 2-7; Whitewater 1-8, 1-8.
WIAA playoff results: Clinton 2-1 (defeated Brookfield Academy, 42-3, and Prairie du Chien, 28-6; lost to Hartland Lake Country Lutheran in quarterfinal, 17-14); Jefferson, Beloit Turner, Evansville/Albany, East Troy 0-1.
RETURNING ALL-CONFERENCE PLAYERS
Offense: Jacob Dessart, sr., QB, East Troy; Kyle Hanaman, sr., RB, Beloit Turner; Nolan Klawitter, sr., RB, Jefferson; Mason Simmons, sr., WR, Edgerton.
Defense: Evan Blumer, sr., DE, Edgerton; Adrian Estrada, sr., DL, Beloit Turner; Malcolm Johnson, sr., ILB, Evansville/Albany; Jordan Lietz, sr., DE, Edgerton; Emiliano Reyes, sr., OLB, Beloit Turner.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jacob Dessart, 6-1, 180, sr., QB, East Troy: Passed for 1,263 yards and 10 touchdowns with 11 interceptions last season, and has a strong crew of returning skill-position players back to give East Troy one of the most fearsome offenses in the league.
Nolan Klawitter, 5-10, 175, sr., RB, Jefferson: Rushed for 1,124 yards and 14 touchdowns last fall, earning first-team all-conference honors in a strong Eagles backfield.
Malcolm Johnson, sr., ILB, Evansville/Albany: Earned first-team all-conference honors last fall, leading the Blue Devils with 110 tackles, six for loss, and one forced fumble.
Mason Simmons, 6-1, 180, sr., WR, Edgerton: Led the Rock Valley Conference in receiving last year and earned all-conference first-team honors, producing 37 catches for 658 yards and 10 touchdowns. Edgerton’s quarterback, third-year starter Jaden Johnson, also returns.
Kyle Hanaman, 5-8, 180, sr., RB, Beloit Turner: Earned all-conference honors last year after rushing for 1,087 yards and 13 touchdowns. Hanaman is a key part of a veteran skill position group that will be the key to the Trojans’ season.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
New look for Eagles: Jefferson coach Steve Gee is switching the Eagles’ offense to a “shotgun spread look” that will take advantage of an abundance of speedy individuals. “Nick Whalen is our new offensive coordinator … but he brings a decade of experience with him,” Gee said. “The players are excited about implementing this scheme, and we feel it will accentuate our team speed, which we feel is an asset this season.” Seniors Ryan Brost (6-1, 165) and Christian Chesmore (6-1, 155) and junior Logan Wagner (5-11, 175) are battling for the quarterback job.
A ten-horse race: With defending champion Clinton suffering some graduation losses and some of the teams at the bottom of last year’s standings returning a lot of experience, coaches expect that every week in the Rock Valley’s closed schedule — with nine conference games and no room for non-conference games — could lead to weekly surprises and challenges. “Whitewater, Edgerton and McFarland will all be improved … Clinton, East Troy, (Walworth) Big Foot, (Beloit) Turner, Evansville and Brodhead/Juda all have a solid group to build on,” Jefferson coach Steve Gee said. “We can all give each other a great game every week. I would not expect an undefeated conference champ this year.”
Track season in the fall: With Edgerton returning all 11 of its starters on offense and East Troy bringing back most of its top-producing skill-position players, offenses appear to be on the rise in the conference this year. “We expect our offense to be the strength of our team,” Edgerton coach Mike Gregory said. Last year, East Troy visited Edgerton and came away with a victory — by a score of 64-52. Six of the league’s 10 teams averaged more than 29 points per game last fall.
1, East Troy; 2, Beloit Turner; 3, Jefferson
Coach: Mike Gregory, 20th year (74-88).
Letterwinners (returning/lost): 19/2.
Starters returning (offense/defense): 11/10.
The lowdown: With only two senior regulars last year, 2017 was a rare down year for Gregory’s program. This year, the Crimson Tide players are planning to cash in the experience gained through those hard knocks. “We will be better than the past two years as we return virtually our entire roster and have numerous kids who have been varsity starters for the past two seasons,” the coach said. “We think we can compete with everybody in our league.” … All 11 starters are back on offense, led by third-year starter Jaden Johnson at quarterback (6-2, 180, sr., 1,672 yards passing, 17 TDs, honorable mention all-conference), and his favorite receiver, Mason Simmons. Another cornerstone on both lines will be senior third-year starter Jordan Lietz (6-0, 210, sr., all-conference first team on defense and second team on defense). … Lietz (50 tackles, nine for loss) and Reed Farrington (6-1, 250, jr., 34 tackles, honorable mention all-conference) anchor the defensive line, with junior Ben Wileman (6-0, 195, 53 tackles) leading the linebackers and junior Skyler Gullickson (6-0, 150, honorable mention all-conference) returning at defensive back.
Coach: Ron Grovesteen, 37th year (271-111).
Letterwinners (returning/lost): 7/15.
Starters returning (offense/defense): 2/4.
The lowdown: For the first time in four years, Grovesteen won’t have quarterback Zach Mielke under center. The four-year starter has moved on to UW-Platteville, and six other starters on the offensive side were lost to graduation. That change “makes it a big challenge (on offense in the) 2018 season,” Grovesteen said. Back is junior wide receiver Sullivan Geske (6-3, 175, team-leading 601 yards and nine TDs on 23 receptions, second-team all-conference), but the Blue Devils must develop someone to get the ball to Geske and a complete line to protect that passer. … Senior defensive lineman Branden Lange, a second-team all-conference pick last year, is one of four key returners on the Blue Devils’ defense. Back on the line are seniors Evan Blumer (6-4, 235), Jacob Shotliff (6-5, 250) and Braiden Bergum (6-4, 240).
Coach: Steve Gee, 13th year (82-42).
Letterwinners (returning/lost): 12/21.
Starters returning (offense/defense): 4/5.
The lowdown: With 13 starters lost to graduation, there are some spots to fill in the Eagles’ lineup. And Gee has taken advantage of the presence of new faces to implement the new shotgun spread offensive scheme. An important part of the transition will be senior running back Nolan Klawitter. Nathan Hebbe (6-0, 210, sr.) appears ready to step into another running back spot. … “Like nearly every coach in the state, we wish we had more depth at the offensive line but feel the group is solid,” Gee said. Three senior starters return: Jakob Parent (6-2, 215), Noah Heine (6-2, 190) and Justin Cusack (5-11, 215). There is plenty of size on the bench, with three underclassmen checking in between 250 and 290 pounds. … The defense has five strong starters back and good overall scheme, favoring a base 4-3 scheme. The leaders should be Parent at defensive end, Hebbe (honorable mention all-conference) and Christian Chesmore at linebackers and Ben Sukow (6-0, 170, sr.) and Ryan Brost in the secondary.
Coach: Paul Ackley, 14th year (61-66).
Letterwinners (returning/lost): 23/7.
Starters returning (offense/defense): 9/8.
The lowdown: With only four starters lost to graduation, and experienced players back at most key positions, Ackley believes this year provides a chance for the Spartans to jump up in the Rock Valley standings and earn a playoff berth. … Back to run the Spartans’ spread offense is senior quarterback Derek Schwarting (6-0, 160, 1,727 yards passing with 17 TDs), throwing to returning receivers Nicholas Hall (5-10, 165, jr., 30 catches, 311 yards, 1 TD), Donovon Hudson (5-10, 145, sr., 35 catches, 303 yards, 5 TDs) and Reece Samuel (6-0, 165, sr., 33 catches, 418 yards, 2 TDs, honorable mention all-conference). … Senior Tysen White (5-9, 175, 236 yards rushing, 1 TD, honorable mention all-conference) was the team’s No. 2 running back last year. Back on the line are seniors Mitchell Roeder (5-9, 260, second team all-conference) and Drew Mickelson (6-4, 290). … Leading the base 3-4-4 defense will be White (78 tackles) and juniors Vivek Tara (5-7, 145) and Cam Schaaf (5-10, 155) at defensive back, senior Cordell Kloth (5-9, 205, 69 tackles) and Samuel (57 tackles) at linebacker and junior Connor Frasier (5-11, 205, second-team all-conference) on the line.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
Beloit Turner coach Derek Diehl is optimistic that the Trojans will have enough returning experience — including multiple third-year starters — to again challenge at the top of the Rock Valley. Key returnees on offense are junior quarterback Kenny Draeving, all-conference senior running back Kyle Hanaman (1,087 yards rushing, 10 TDs) and senior running back/linebacker/kicker Emiliano Reyes (653 yards). The defensive line is anchored by senior lineman Adrian Estrada, Reyes and sophomore linebacker Mickey Burrows.
Brodhead/Juda earned a 25th consecutive playoff berth last year, falling to eventual WIAA Division 4 state champion Lodi in the first round. The year, coach Jim Matthys will pin the Cardinals’ hopes on an experienced lineup featuring 15 returning starters Fifteen starters return, including four honorable mention all-league picks: senior lineman Trent Davis, senior wide receiver/returner Parker Johnson (now taking over at quarterback), fullback/linebacker Jeffrey Williams and senior offensive lineman/linebacker Nick Noonan.
Clinton has a new head coach, as former offensive coordinator Jake Standiford steps into the top spot. He’s busy trying to develop replacements after graduation took away 12 players who earned all-conference mention last year. Senior Jackson Nelson (5-7, 155; honorable mention all-conference last year) will take over as the Cougars’ featured running back, replacing Zach Krause, who ran for 2,386 yards and 27 TDs last year. Senior Sam Duggan (second-team all-conference last year) will anchor an otherwise young line.
East Troy is looking forward to a big year — especially on offense — after the Trojans made the playoffs with a junior-dominated lineup last year. The centerpiece will be senior quarterback/punter Jake Dessart (1,719 yards rushing with 23 TDs; 6-1, 180; 1,263 yards passing with 10 touchdowns, 38.1-yard punting average). Returning second-team all-conference picks are senior running back Dylan Jakscht, senior wide receiver Jacob Price and junior linebacker Zach Burke.
Walworth Big Foot returns five seniors on both the offensive and defensive lines, along with last year’s No. 2 receiver, senior Aidan Greco (47 catches, 614 yards) and senior defensive end Jack Hereley (61 tackles, second-team all-conference). Senior quarterback Logan Eischeid, pressed into action due to injury last year, threw for 820 yards and six touchdowns.
Whitewater turned a corner when the Whippets snapped a 15-game losing streak late last season, beating Brodhead/Juda. And now, coach Jim Pease’s Whippets hope to keep building behind the strength of a talented junior class. Junior running back/defensive back Will Leibbrand (5-8, 145) was an honorable mention all-conference pick last year, as was junior linebacker Cooper Pease (5-10, 150).