It’s lonely at the top of the Eastern Valley Conference.
That’s because the Waupaca Comets are usually the team sitting in the catbird’s seat.
It has been 23 seasons since the last Waupaca football team failed to make the postseason, and only three Comets teams in that span have not won or shared the conference championship. Each of those teams finished no lower than second.
This year should be no different as the Comets return loads of talent, including senior co-captains Bryce Neidert, Nate Jenson and Zander Neuville.
The 6-foot-3, 175-pound Neidert will be behind center, while Jenson (6-5, 213) and Neuville (6-4, 200) will make big targets as the Comets’ top receiving threats.
Waupaca also returns more than 20 seniors from last year’s team that played in the WIAA Division 3 state championship game. Although the Comets lost 42-7 to Waukesha Catholic Memorial in the title game, they had an impressive march to get there, including a 16-14 win over defending state champion West De Pere in the state semifinals.
“I think what we’ve established is a great work ethic on the part of our players,” Waupaca coach John Koronkiewicz said. “We come out each and every day and try to get a little better in some element of the game. Tradition is important to us. Each team carries that burden a little bit. There’s a little pressure. Pressure is good. It means you are playing for something. If you don’t have pressure on you, you aren’t playing for anything.”
Freedom, Little Chute and Xavier are the best bets to give Waupaca a run for the conference title.
Freedom will be in the mix as the Irish returns Wisconsin’s leading rusher from last season in Nathan Peters, who rushed for 2,249 despite not starting in the first three games of the season.
Little Chute, which finished one game out last season, returns more than 20 seniors from a team that finished 9-2 overall.
Xavier, which was in a rebuilding mode last season, also returns more than 20 seniors, including quarterback Matt Ferris, who passed for 1,917 yards and 18 touchdowns.
But all eyes will be on Waupaca as it looks to return to the state title game.
“We look at each and every season as an opportunity to show who we are,” Koronkiewicz said. “Each team has its own identity and each team develops its own camaraderie as we go. It’s an enjoyable place to be.”
And with so many seniors that know only winning, expectations for this season have been raised even further.
“I think it’s just the expectation of Waupaca football,” Jenson said. “We’re always in the hunt for the state championship. If we don’t make it, we always play in the Level 3, Level 4 at some point. I think a big key for us is we have so many seniors this year. We have 20-plus seniors. I’ve played on varsity, this is my fourth year now, and I’ve never had that many seniors. It’s really good for us.”
Neidert agrees the Comets have big expectations and aren’t about to let down the community.
“I think we set the bar pretty high last year,” Neidert said. “As far as what I’ve seen so far in camp this year, we look every bit as good as we were last year at this time, maybe even better. I expect us to make a run at first and the conference championship and then see how the playoffs go.
“It’s the tradition around here. Everyone around town rallies behind the team. It’s not just the players and the coaches, it’s a community thing. Everyone gets behind the Comets and push us. Carrying that burden can push us over the edge.”
Not lost is the fact the Comets also play in one of the most competitive conferences around.
“We play a lot of good teams and we see a lot of different styles and I think it prepares us well for the playoffs,” Neuville said.
“I think the conference is going to be pretty good from top to bottom,” Koronkiewicz said. “As I look around, I see the kinds of players they have coming back. Any one of them can be pretty good on any given night. Obviously, I think Freedom is a pretty good football team. They proved a year ago that they could compete.
“I think Xavier has some kids. Little Chute has some kids. I think everybody is a little improved, even the teams on the bottom of the conference. I think they have better football players and better teams than a year ago.”
But unless something drastic changes, there’s a good chance the rest of the conference will again be looking up at the Comets in the standings.
Predicted order of finish: 1, Waupaca; 2, Freedom; 3, Little Chute; 4, Xavier; 5, Fox Valley Lutheran; 6, Ripon; 7, Winneconne; 8, Clintonville; 9, Berlin.
— Dan Kohn: 920-993-1000, ext. 305, or firstname.lastname@example.org; On Twitter @PCDanKohn