Well folks, this is it.
After much discussion with my family, its been decided that I’m going to take my career in a new direction and will no longer be your Antelope County News sports editor as of February 2. However, that gives me one final column, and I want to leave you guys with some positive predictions for the future. Hang on, because here we go.
Neligh-Oakdale - The Warriors will be back in a state final before this year’s freshmen boys are gone. This year has been a bit rough compared to recent ones with the departure of some strong seniors last year, but it is only temporary. The younger classes have plenty of depth and talent. I’m betting they make it to the finals in either football or boys basketball before 2021.
Clearwater-Orchard - The Cyclone boys will be the West Holt of next year. What I mean is that the Huskies had a strong year last year, but came up short in both football and basketball. This year, with a ton of returning contributors, they have dominated in both sports, including being the top-ranked D1 basketball team. That will be O-C next year with a will-be senior class that is overflowing with talent leading the way.
Elkhorn Valley - Their junior class will lead them to a state championship berth. The trio of Hannah Ollendick, Amber Miller and Sierra Rystrom are as strong of a front line as you will find in any class D school. They do it all in both volleyball and basketball. They were underdogs entering the state tournament for volleyball this year. They won’t be next year.
Elgin Public/Pope John - The boys will join the girls in prominence again soon enough. Obviously, the Wolfpack boys haven’t seen the success they would want the past two seasons. It’s not for lack of talent, it’s for lack of numbers. When the depth isn’t there for any sport, it makes it hard to consistently win. The numbers will grow. The Wolfpack will be back on top soon enough.
In addition, some of you may remember my crystal ball predictions this past summer regarding future all-star game participants. I’d like to add a couple of gifted freshmen to that list.
From Neligh-Oakdale, Julien Hearn, Brock Kester, Colton Klabenes, Dawson Kaup, Garret Belitz, Caleb Payne, Trinity Kurpgeweit, and Paige Furstenau all have the gifts.
Elkhorn Valley’s Braedyn Ollendick, Hunter Howard, Caden Reikofski, Hunter Bennett and Adam Miller will have spectacular careers.
Anthony Umphress, Elly Herley and Avery Cheatum will lead the Cyclones to great things.
Kirsten Krebs will have an incredible career for EPPJ as well. I’m sure a few more will pop up, but these athletes have shown great potential from day one.
There it is ladies and gentlemen. My final predictions for you.
Thank you all for reading and the appreciation you’ve shown over the past nearly-two years. I’ve had some great experiences with you all and have enjoyed the impressive performances of our area teams in that time. I hope to continue to carry over the great relationships I’ve built into the next step.
Until then, I’ll see you all around.
The Neligh-Oakdale Invite is a busy one, no doubt, but it can also be a bit of a preview of state wrestling.
That may sound a bit like hyperbole, but hear me out. Last year, 21 teams went to battle in Neligh for the annual meet, including teams from as far away as Amherst and Franklin. Just a few weeks after the invite, a number of those competitors took to the mat in Omaha for state. By the time the weekend was over, 26 wrestlers that took part in the Neligh-Oakdale invite earned a medal at state. On top of that, a number of wrestlers that sat out in Neligh due to injury medaled at state as well.
This year, the competition was even more intense, with three more teams joining the fray in Neligh. Returning medalists Dillon Stewart, Darren Stewart, Josh McFarland, Cameron Wilkinson and Andrew Herley all lived up to expectations, taking championships in their respective classes. They’ll surely be back at state this year. The question is just who will join them. I’ve got a simple formula for you. Pay attention to the medalists.
In particular, the top three in each class. If that theory holds, that means Shawn Klinetobe can expect a return trip and Adam Miller and Hunter Bennett will join him from Elkhorn Valley. Brock Kester and Jayden Arehart would have a spot in that case as well. That would also mean Tommie Peed and Donaven Nolze would have a spot.
It wouldn’t surprise me for all of those to punch their ticket at districts, along with a few others. I could see a few more surprise competitors making it. Now we just wait and see.
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.
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