Omaha Skutt. Amherst. Millard South.
Once December hits, those teams are synonymous with winning - at least on the wrestling mat. After the results put up by Elkhorn Valley the past three years, I think its time to start putting them into the conversation of top programs in the state.
The Falcon wrestlers have owned nearly every meet against similar competition the past three and a half years. To win team titles in the smaller classes, it takes a mixture of depth and talent, and Elkhorn Valley has plenty of it. Few schools in Class D can boast as many stud wrestlers as the Falcons, let alone as many with state experience.
The Stewart twins have been incredible throughout their entire careers, including last year when Dillon Stewart took home Elkhorn Valley’s third ever state championship and Darren finished fourth. Josh McFarland is just a junior but has 100 wins and two state tournaments under his belt. Prestin Vondra, Brock Schaecher and Shawn Klinetobe have all been under the lights in Omaha. At the rate everything is going, Adam Miller, Hunter Bennett and Mitchell Petersen could easily join them this year.
The Falcons have finished in the top 15 in the team title the past three years, including third in 2016 and fifth last year. From last year’s strong squad, Elkhorn Valley lost just one senior state qualifier.
Districts are just a month away from this week. Elkhorn Valley could well win the D-2 district. If you ask me, they will be in the conversation for the state title come February 17, as well.
Lets flashback to last season on the basketball court.
All year long, there was one boys team and one girls team that just stood above everyone on a regular basis and you knew they were destined to go to the state tournament - Neligh-Oakdale’s boys and Elgin Public/Pope John’s girls. Nearly ever week, you could chalk up their games as wins.
Coming back to this year, that isn’t quite the case. There is much more parity on the court than there was last season.
In the battle for the best of Antelope County for the boys, I believe it will prove to be a close match. The Warriors are once again winning, including a win over Elkhorn Valley. However, the Falcons have some pieces to grow on that could make them more challenging later in the year.
Elgin Public/Pope John had growing pains last year, but those boys took Niobrara/Verdigre - a team that has been incredibly consistent in recent years - to the wire on Friday. Clearwater-Orchard has shown to be solid as well, battling an athletic CWC squad shot-for-shot. The Warriors beat the other three county teams last year, but this year may be a tougher battle.
On the girls side, Clearwater-Orchard and Neligh-Oakdale will grow as they replace some key players from last year. The two teams that everyone should look forward to watching go head-to-head, however, are Elkhorn Valley and EPPJ. The Wolfpack lost a lot of talent, but still looked equally dominant over Niobrara/Verdigre on Friday. Elkhorn Valley has a core of players coaches beg for. When the two teams clash for local supremacy, I have a feeling it will be go down to the wire.
Last year, the area saw dominance week in and week out. This year, enjoy the ride, because there will be no easy games for anyone. Everyone is about to be challenged.
Well, Elkhorn Valley, you did it.
You got hot at the right time. You locked up a spot at state. You proved me right and wrong at the same time.
The Falcons proved me right and wrong becasue I admittedly began to doubt them as the year dragged on. I didn’t doubt the talent. I didn’t doubt the coaching. Honestly, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I doubted. They just seemed to fall when I expected them to rise. I guess I just doubted my ability to predict them.
That wasn’t always the case. If you recall, I said multiple times in my preseason previews that I expected them to lock up a spot at state this year. As a matter of fact, I was pretty adamant that they would be going down there with Elgin Public/Pope John. With what they returned in production from last year, it seemed inevitable.
However, games aren’t played on paper and when the season hit, it didn’t go as smooth as I expected. The Falcons sat an 8-8 over midway through the season. They finished the year on an 6-3 run, but it wasn’t quite as dominant as I expected it should have been.
Then subdistricts hit. The Falcons eased past Osmond and Randolph in a way that looked more like I expected it to.
However, I’ll admit, with the way the season had gone, I didn’t know if they could get it done against a Wolfpack squad that sat fourth in the wildcard standings and looked primed for a return trip to Lincoln.
I wasn’t able to make it the game myself. It was an exciting one from all accounts, despite just being three sets. I fortunately had my lovely wife there to text me updates. When I stepped out of meeting to read them all, I was pretty stunned.
“EV up 2-0.” “10-6 in 3rd set, EV up.” “EV wins.”
I was stunned for a variety of reasons. I was stunned that the game only went three sets. I expected all five. I was stunned the Falcons finished it so fast. I was stunned the Falcons turned it around at the absolute perfect moment to make themselves everyone’s favorite story in Lincoln.
Congratulations girls. See you Thursday.
If you ask me on any given day what my favorite sport is, the answer will likely be football. However, at this time of year, there is nothing more exciting to cover than a volleyball match.
It helps that volleyball is played indoors. Honestly, I’m a bit of a baby when it comes to cold weather. I enjoy the warmth of the gym compared to the bitter cold of the wind on an open football field.
More importantly, however, these games really start to matter. It seems like every game from the start of the conference tournaments on are just a bit more exciting than usual.
A good volleyball match will have everyone jumping out of their seats throughout. However, a great volleyball match, like the one between Elgin Public/Pope John and Ewing in O’Neill last Friday, will keep you on your feet.
Once it gets towards the end of the season like this, everyone is just a bit more intense and focused on the court. The seniors especially seem to step it up and get a bit more passionate about every point and every mistake. They know they are closing in on their last chance to compete like this with their volleyball family.
Often, the district tournaments are full of surprises. That is because at this point it is really just a game of emotion. Teams that have struggled throughout the season just seem to pull out a game or two that isn’t expected, playing spoiler on some poor team’s state tournament hopes. That is because those lower seeds are tired of being beat. They are tired of being overlooked. And they simply are not ready to call it a season.
This time of year, the games get longer. The spikes get harder. The defense is more focused. The coaches even seem to yell a bit louder.
Everyone knows what is on the line. I love it.
Just a couple years ago, Clearwater-Orchard set out on a Cinderella-like run through the playoffs all the way to the state semifinals, only to be topped by eventual runner-up and this week’s opponent, Burwell. If the Cyclones can take down the Longhorns this week, no one will be calling them a Cinderella story this time around.
O-C has been arguably the best story on the gridiron all year. After winning just two games last year, the Cyclones returned all but two players from a young squad that showed a lot of promise. I, like many O-C fans, expected them to have a strong year this year. However, I admittedly didn’t expect it to be so dominant.
The Cyclones have destroyed opponents on both sides of the ball, scoring an average of 54 points a game and giving up just 48 total points all year, including just six in the past three weeks. They have shown the ability to cripple any offense they face and have had very little trouble moving the ball, averaging 371 yards a night of total offense.
The two-man quarterback attack of Blake Hoke and Chris Kester is enough to keep defenses on their heels. Coupled with the running game of Kester, Creston Bertschinger and Jacob Long, the Cyclones are a lethal attack.
All that will be tested against a team that has had O-C’s number lately, Burwell. The Longhorns took their first loss last weekend against West Holt, proving they aren’t bulletproof, but they may be angry. The two teams are nearly identical in their dominance, as Burwell has given up just over 12 points a game and scored 45.
If O-C can take Burwell down this week, no one will be calling them a Cinderella this postseason.
For the love of all that is great on the gridiron, give me back my weekend football time.
Until recently, the average football fan was able to look forward to a good football game on Sunday afternoon or Monday night. It was generally a great excuse to relax, gather with family or friends and not worry about anything except for enjoying the product on the field.
However, anymore, you can’t turn on a game without seemingly half of the conversation on the screen being about something political, usually the recent protests during the anthem. It is ruining football.
I’m really not a very political guy. Very rarely will I express my opinion on issues such as this - although, ironically, this time last year, I did. That’s not what this is about. This is a plea to get the enjoyment of a Sunday football game back.
The thing is, the issue is rehashed every single week when another player is shown on his knee. President Trump acted as a catalyst to get the fire burning hot again with some of his comments, making this weekend the absolute worst.
Frankly, I don’t put the task of fixing the NFL product on the league. You can’t tell players whether they can protest or not and expect to be taken seriously. That’s infringing on constitutional rights, no matter how disrespectful you find it. Instead, I put the burden on the major media. ESPN. Fox. ABC. CBS. Any channel that broadcasts the games. Anyone that writes on a game. Stop sensationalizing it.
It is absolutely their right. The issues they question should be looked in to. However, the world of athletics need to quit being taken over by politics. There’s a place and time. During a game is not it.
New England Patriots. 1990’s Nebraska Cornhuskers. Alabama Crimson Tide.
Those are just a few examples that come to mind quickly of a dynasty. If you look more locally, you could probably add St. Mary’s volleyball, Crofton girls athletics and Norfolk Catholic football. If things keep going the way they are, you can probably soon add Elgin Public/Pope John volleyball to that list.
A dynasty is typically a team that is the cream of the crop, year in and year out. They are always in contention for championships at the varying levels and almost always enter games as the favorite. Opponents often circle that game on the calendar. It often draws the biggest crowd and rarely ends with the opponent heading home happy.
That has been the case for the Wolfpack the past four years. Coach Tina Thiele-Blecher has created an atmosphere of winning in the locker room and the girls expect to win.
Last year, that amounted to the first state championship berth in Wolfpack history after narrowly missing out on a shot for three years in a row. They did that on the strength of a strong senior class, so it was understandable to expect a step back this year. However, that has been far from the case.
The team just keeps winning. The underclassmen have seamlessly stepped into lead rolls and they are rolling to an 8-1 start. They know how to get the kill at the net, with Paige Meis, Grace Henn and Lydia Behnk all over 40 kills so far this season. They get plenty of defense to go with it, too.
If the Wolfpack keep winning, they’ll be long remembered for their incredible run.
This past week we got a taste of what makes high school sports great - rivalries.
In particular, we saw Neligh-Oakdale take on Clearwater-Orchard in both volleyball and football, on homecoming week no less. This go around, the Cyclones were able to get the best of the Warriors in both match ups.
What separated the battles from other games this season was the atmosphere during the games. When teams like Clearwater-Orchard and Neligh-Oakdale get together, there is always an added sense of urgency throughout the room. The people in the stands, most of whom took part in those battles themselves when they were in school, seem to cheer a bit louder. The celebrations on the sidelines get a bit more powerful. The coaches are just a bit more intense.
Rivalries are what drive the competition of high school and even college sports. The best rivalries are the ones fueled by towns that are in close proximity. The kids all generally know each other. They know the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent. They always want bragging rights and, usually, the best rivalries involve some light trash talk.
You can never expect to be able to predict what will happen in a rivalry game. The added motivation that comes with bragging rights can not be understated. That’s why it is understandable when coaches and players feel a little bit more intense about the end result.
This state is full of great rivalries. The Millard Schools. Kearney and Grand Island. Omaha Skutt and Elkhorn South. Chambers/Wheeler Central and Burwell. Neligh-Oakdale and Clearwater-Orchard.
Rivalries are the best part of high school athletics. Locally, the Cyclones won this round, but the fight isn’t over. Neligh-Oakdale will soon flip the script again. The fight will go back and forth for a long time.
Let’s get it out of the way right away - the first week of football season was rough for Antelope County fans. For the first time in recent memory, the county went winless in a big way on opening weekend. No one is used to that. However, it will get better.
Lets start on Thursday with Elkhorn Valley. I expected them to come home from Winside with the win. Everything seemed to set up for it, and for the most part, it was starting to look that way midway through the third quarter. However, turnovers were a killer in the end. This team is still young. They have lots of talent and the running game showed well. However, it will be a rocky year as they continue to grow. Coach Dittmer and staff can correct the errors. They will have more chances at a win, so be patient.
Elgin Public/Pope John struggled to get anything going against Burwell, getting blanked. A reminder, though, that this is Burwell - the defending state champs and one of the favorites to make it back their again. For the second-straight year, the Wolfpack’s schedule is brutal. They are young again as well, with just a few experienced seniors. Coach Eisenhauer knows what he’s doing. They will have more chances at a win, so be patient.
Now, Neligh-Oakdale. They experienced their first 50-point or more loss since 2013 - a 52-point loss to Creighton after losing to the Bulldogs by 78 in 2012. The run defense struggled mightily and Creighton continued to pound the rock all night. That didn’t sit well with many, and I understand that. Again, these guys are young, with two-thirds of the roster being freshmen and sophomores. They’ll bounce back this week and Coach Beacom knows how to come back. They are talented and, you guessed it, they will have more chances at a win, so be patient.
Ladies and gentlemen, with each passing week we get even closer to another new fall sports season. Therefore, this week I’ll be knocking out two school for my candid look at the teams. Again, I’ll have more formal previews coming your way soon.
First, Clearwater-Orchard. On the football field, this could be a very good team. Coach Jeff Shabram has had plenty of experience with strong years and the talent is definitely there to do it again. Lots of young kids saw the field last year. Creston Bertschinger is a natural leader and Blake Hoke, Chris Kester, Clay Thiele and Ryan Wilhelm will be leaned on as leaders now as well. They could surprise this year.
The volleyballers are a team of potential. They lost some big talent to graduation, but have plenty of gifted youngsters. JoCee Johnston is as good of a player as any and will lead the team all year.
Now, Elgin Public/Pope John. The Wolfpack, too, had lots of young guys on the football field last year. Injuries were a struggle, but it could bode well for this year. There may not be a better lineman than Liam Heithoff in the area and Hunter Reestman will explode statistically if he can get a full season on the field.
The volleyball team only has to live up to last season - the best season in school history. Coach Tina Thiele-Blecher doesn’t struggle to keep her team motivated and focused and when she has the talent that EPPJ provides, it means special things. They lost a few very good players last year, but Paige Meis and Grace Henn will take the lead while Allyson Wemhoff will be tasked with controlling the pace of the game.
Sports Editor at Antelope County News/The Orchard News, Logan is from Kearney and has a diverse sports background, including several seasons playing semi-pro football. All columns here are the opinion of the writer only and do not represent the views of the Antelope County News or Pitzer Digital.