Saying that Coleman ran through the Marinette-Oconto Conference the past two seasons would be an understatement.
But after outscoring their conference foes 760-77 to win two straight championships, the Cougars aren’t expecting to roll in such dominant fashion to a third title.
With 18 new starters in the lineup, this year’s Coleman squad knows it’s in for a tight race if it wants to maintain the success of previous teams.
“We figure we’re going to be in a lot of fourth-quarter games this year because the M&O returns a lot of talent from last year,” Coleman coach Jeff Bronson said. “We don’t plan on it being like last year where we got up early on people and just kind of landslide from there.”
Wausaukee, Crivitz and Suring figure to play in the race with experience returning in the backfield, while the favorite coming into the season is Peshtigo, which has numerous starters returning in the backfield and on the offensive line.
“There are a lot of teams that are close to even, probably more so than we’ve had in the past,” Peshtigo coach Sam Komp said. “My feeling is Coleman is the champion until someone beats them.”
Bronson added, “It’s going to be interesting up here. It’s definitely going to be a league where you can’t afford to sleep on anybody.”
The rest of the teams in the M&O are probably sleeping a little better these days knowing they won’t see Mitch Champagne in the Cougars’ backfield anymore.
Champagne rushed for 4,810 yards overall the past three seasons, including 2,563 in league play, to earn the M&O’s running back of the year award three times.
Champagne graduated with a class that not only helped Coleman reach the WIAA Division 6 quarterfinals twice in football, but featured many three-sport athletes who helped the Cougars win three straight state titles in wrestling and the school’s first state title in baseball last June.
“The kids that we have here now want to get their own recognition as a group on their own,” Bronson said. “They don’t want to be known as the class or the group that things fall apart on.”
“We’re hoping they continue with the lessons they learned by playing with that last group.”
Bronson feels confident the combination of seniors Mason Mergener and Mike Carroll along with junior Dexter Karban can replace the production of Champagne in Coleman’s Wing-T offense.
His main concern entering the season is the offensive line, where senior tackle Isaac Nowak is the only returning starter.
“We have kids that know how to win, and we have kids that know how to work hard, so we’re going to lean on them early this year because of how young we’re going to be,” Bronson said.
Coach: Jeff Bronson, third year.
2011 record: 11-1
Overview: This will be Bronson’s 15th year on the coaching staff. The Cougars will be trying to qualify for the postseason for a seventh straight season despite returning only two starters on both offense and defense. Senior Isaac Nowak (first team all-conference) and junior Jordan Micheels (second team) on the line are the strength of the defense.
Coach: Jeff Ott, eighth year (nonconsecutive).
2011 record: 3-6
Overview: The Wolverines will be trying to make the postseason for the first time since 2007. Despite graduating second-team all-conference RB/LB Jon Kersten, Crivitz returns senior starters in quarterback Alec Garcia, running back Jed Nelson and receiver Parker DeLoSantos.
Coach: Rick Kamps, sixth year.
2011 record: 3-6
Overview: The Tigers graduated John Verhagen, who was the M&O’s lineman of the year last season. Gillett also will have to replace quarterback Ben Rehn and running backs T.J. Carlson and Kyle Ladwig in order to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Lena/Marinette St. Thomas
Co-coaches: Dale Lange, 11th year, and Ed Huberty, sixth year.
2011 record: 4-5
Overview: The Titans graduated Craig Huberty, who was second in the M&O in rushing yards (378) and was a first team all-conference kicker and punter. The backfield will remain a strength, though, with Dominique Ramirez returning after finishing fifth in conference with 255 yards. Gillett has solid size on the line but lacks experience. The strength of its defense is an experienced linebacker corps.
Coach: Sam Komp, 11th year (nonconsecutive).
2011 record: 4-6
Overview: The Bulldogs will be trying to qualify for the playoffs for a fifth straight season and win their first conference title since 2009. Junior Jordan Berth returns after earning first-team all-conference honors as a two-way lineman. Junior Brodie Kessel also was named to the second team as an offensive lineman, where Komp said the team lacks depth. On the perimeter, junior quarterback Dakota Keller returns after throwing for 447 yards in conference last year. Seniors Jesse Felch (369 rushing yards) and Dakota Marino (second team receiver) also return as starters.
Coach: Mitch Taylor, 14th year.
2011 record: 5-4
Overview: The Eagles missed the playoffs last season but have qualified six of the past eight seasons. Seniors Jay Tienor (384 conf. passing yards) and Cody Christensen (second-team all-conference) return to lead the offense, while lineman Sam Schaal (second team) and linebacker Blake Strehlow (second team) will head the defense.
Coach: Jared Deschane, first year.
2011 record: 9-2
Overview: Coming off their first playoff appearance since winning a share of the M&O in 2007, the Rangers return senior RB/LB Cole Lewandowski, senior WR/DB Ryan Nystrom and junior WR/DB Beau DeLaet. Nystrom led the conference with 21 catches for 316 yards. Jared Deschane takes over as coach for Pat Edlbeck, who led Wausaukee to the playoffs in seven of his 11 seasons. The Rangers also will have to replace Brett Edlbeck, who led the conference in passing yards (683) in addition to being a first-team all-conference defensive back.