CIK Season Preview: Sabetha, Ellsworth look to experience to upend traditional powers in 2023 in Class 2A

Ellsworth's Will Cravens
Ellsworth's Will Cravens(Joey Bahr | (Photo: Joey Bahr, www.joeybahr.)
Published: Aug. 22, 2023 at 5:42 PM CDT
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Class 2A saw a change in its power structure last fall as two-time defending champion Rossville dropped to 5-5 and made an early exit in the playoffs. Nemaha Central, after playoff losses to Rossville in each of the past two seasons, beat the Bulldogs en route to a perfect 13-0 season.

The Thunder return just a handful of players back on both sides of the ball in 2023. Much of the offense vanishes with the graduations of Cooper Hajek, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 42 touchdowns, and quarterback Brayden Uphaus, who threw for nearly 1,200 yards. All-staters Connor Deters and Blake Stallbaumer will be missed on the offensive line, and all-staters Wade Leonard and Jake Hundley will be missed defensively.

Sophomore Carter Hajek rushed for just 451 yards and five scores last year, but he averaged 8.4 yards a carry as a freshman. Three Thunder linemen do return, including all-state senior Holden Bass and his impressive 6-4, 290-pound frame.

Kingman has not exactly slouched in recent seasons. The Eagles outlasted title contender Southeast of Saline in double-overtime last year before falling to Nemaha 33-17 in the title game to wrap up a 12-1 season. Kingman was 10-2 the year before. Coach Tanner Hageman is 31-12 in his first four years with the program.

Hageman’s rebuild worked from a three-win season four years ago to last year’s title game and near-perfect season. The new season will be a test with the graduation of several top players, including quarterback Nolan Freund, who piled up numbers on the ground and in the air. Running back Ty Birkenbaugh and wideout Avrey Albright will be missed on offense but also earned all-state honors on the defensive side. Ben Bradshaw likely moves into the quarterback role and gets help from senior Carter Helm at wideout. Helm also picked off 10 passes last year to earn all-state honors. Junior Brody Bell returns on the defensive line with all-state honors.

Southeast of Saline appeared to be a title favorite at 11-0 before falling to Kingman in the state semifinals. The Trojans played just two competitive games before suffering their first loss. But Southeast suffers one of the biggest losses in the class with the graduation of Luke Gebhardt, who threw for nearly 2,400 yards and rushed for 883 more. Also gone are Landen Allen, Michael Murray, and Jake Gebhardt, who combined for 2,033 yards and 23 touchdowns on 155 receptions. The group of seniors lost just six games in their four seasons.

The good news in Gypsum is that not all the offense is gone. Despite the Gebhardt show, senior Nathan Friesen still surpassed 1,000 rushing yards and found the end zone 17 times. Defensively, Southeast returns all-league lineman Josiah Monday and safety Daniel Kejr, who combined for 110 tackles. Monday had four sacks and Kejr picked off two passes.

Sabetha was the other state semifinalist in Class 2A, and the Bluejays are looking even harder at a title in 2023 with the return of several top players. Sabetha finished a misleading 9-3 last season with losses to 3A runner-up Holton and 2A champion Nemaha Central.

Gone is quarterback Matthew Garber and his 800 passing yards, and running backs Jonathan Renyer and Josh Herrmann, who combined for nearly 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns. Senior Colin Menold rushed for 860 yards and five scores last year, and seniors Marcus Bauman and Christian McAfee combined for nearly 500 receiving yards.

The Jays will have plenty of help up front behind the Grimm brothers: both seniors, Josh and Jacob each stand well above six-feet tall and weigh in at a combined 620 pounds. McAfee led the defense with 86 tackles, and senior Tyler Menold was also an all-state pick on the defensive side.

Ellsworth and Hoisington are old district rivals. Last year saw a departure of that but the Bearcats will look to build on an 8-2 season after losses to two powerhouses in Southeast of Saline and Kingman. Seventh-year coach Josh Homolka has a 25-29 record at the school, but with all 11 starters back on both sides of the ball, expectations have never been so high.

Senior quarterback Will Cravens threw for nearly 1,200 yards with 15 touchdowns and just one interception. He’s also a capable runner with 305 yards last season. Senior Cole Webber was his favorite target last fall, pulling in 33 receptions for 573 yards and 13 of those touchdowns. Senior Layton Leiker added 374 yards on 31 catches. Seniors Loden and Wyatt Bohnen split 1,100 yards on the ground, combining for 13 scores. All-state senior Jordan Rodriguez leads the offensive line.

If the offensive was impressive, the defense was more so last year, allowing just six points in the first five weeks of the season. The Bearcat secondary picked off 13 passes, led by Webber’s three picks. West paced the squad with 69 tackles.

Hoisington will also look to go further in the playoffs after an 8-3 season. Coach Zach Baird has led the Cardinals to an 87-18 record in his first nine years, and Hoisington played for a state title in 2020.

Baird returns most of his top offensive threats. Senior quarterback Tony Moore just missed 1,000 rushing yards last year, averaging better than 11 yards a carry. He threw for another 656 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Hoisington has always been a run-first team, piling up nearly 3,200 yards last year. Senior Ian Smith and juniors Teron Kraft and Mason Alderice all rushed for at least 550 yards last fall. Alderice caught seven passes for 109 yards and a score. All-state senior Caiden Hoffman will lead the line up front.

The Cardinal defense was also stout last year, shutting out four opponents and allowing just two touchdowns in the first eight weeks of the season. Kraft’s 66 tackles led the squad, and Alderice, Moore, and Rhen Galla each had two interceptions.

Silver Lake finished at 6-3 under new head coach Logan Pegram last year. The Eagles will look to return to the spotlight this fall behind senior quarterback Tanner Martin, who threw for nearly 2,200 yards and rushed for 542 more last season. Senior Eli Barnes returns as the favorite target with 670 yards and five touchdowns last year.

With a 17-7 record over the past two seasons, Beloit has been a tough match-up in the class. Seventh-year coach Brad Gober loses one of the top linemen in the state in Grady Seyfert, and also loses his top-two running backs. Logan Arasmith rushed for more than 1,800 yards in his final season. At 6-2, 190 pounds, senior Quinn Eilert brings nice size back to the quarterback spot after throwing for 400 yards last year. Senior Maddox Waters returns as a favorite receiver.

Russell looks to keep the momentum going after a 6-4 showing in 2022. The Broncs lost three times to perennial powers and just missed in an 18-15 loss against Ellsworth. Last year’s showing was a far stretch from the usual in Russell: the best season in 19 years and the first playoff win since 1979. Several times in the past 15 years, the Broncs won just one or two games.

Quarterback Wyatt Middleton played a big role in the big season with more than 2,000 yards of total offense, including 1,863 passing yards with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions. Two of his top-three targets also graduated, including Jackson Cross, who finished with 613 yards and four touchdowns on 46 receptions. Running back Jacob Ney rushed for 600-plus yards and will also be missed sorely on defense. Junior Mason Rohr threw just 13 passes last year for 64 yards, and sophomore Walker Middleton finished second on the team with 298 rushing yards on 27 carries.