The Valley Football Association is in its third season, but this season should see some familiar teams battling it out for the top spot: Kimberly and Appleton North.
The South Division is a bit more open, with co-conference champs Stevens Point and Marshfield contenders along with Menasha and Oshkosh North.
Kimberly, on paper, has fantastic talent returning at several key positions. The Papermakers have a top running back (J.P. Peerenboom); two offensive linemen that garnered first-team all-conference honors (Kolton Davidson, Logan Nelson) and one of the top defensive lineman in the conference (Ty Romenesko).
The big key for the Papermakers offense is how well Scott Schreiber plays at quarterback. Schreiber, one of the top athletes in the area and a major baseball talent, moves from receiver to behind center this season. While Schreiber did play quarterback sparingly last season, his grasp of the offense and ability to move the football will be critical for the Papermakers’ Pistol offense.
Kimberly coach Steve Jones also points to Luke Winnen (safety) and Mitch Fischer (linebacker) as key players for the Papermakers defense.
“Luke returns for us at safety and has had a great camp so far,” Jones said. “He will be our leader in our defensive secondary.
“Leading a very inexperienced linebacker corps will be (Fischer). He is always the first one to practice and the last one to leave. He has become a very physical outside linebacker and we have high expectations for him this season.”
Kimberly’s top challenger in the VFA-North is Appleton North. The Lightning won the VFA-North last season and returns several outstanding athletes on both sides of the ball.
Dan Rothbauer, a multi-talented running back last season, will play quarterback for North. He’ll have NFL-sized receiving options with Javonte McGraw (6-2, 170), Nick Schilling (6-2, 170) and Cole Erickson (6-3, 175), with Ethan Danz and Keegan Kruel manning the run game.
North coach Rob Salm also said that Weston Floerke and Keshawn Henning will contribute on offense for the Lightning.
Defensively, the Lightning has the area’s top linebacker (Mark Gajewski) and defensive back (Connor Rolain). Evan Polce is also a top returning defensive back with Cole Salm a key player on the defensive line.
“I like the way our team is coming together,” coach Salm said. “We have enough returning experience to make us dangerous, but enough inexperience to make us a work in progress.
“We start off on the road in a tough place to play (D.C. Everest). It’s the fifth year in a row we have five road games. It’s clear after last year’s playoffs the WIAA thinks Everest is our home field.”
D.C. Everest, Appleton East and Wausau East made the playoffs last season along with Appleton North and Kimberly. The Evergreens are a popular pick to reach the playoffs this season and have a very talented junior and sophomore class. They may be a year away from contending for the title.
Appleton East was led by one of the area’s top defenses last year, but lost a bulk of those players to graduation.
“We will have a lot of new faces over there,” East coach Pat Schwanke said. “We have some leadership in returning defensive starters Ryan Nebel (ILB), Alic Riedel (CB) and Steven Vang (NG), but everyone else will be new with some limited experience. We have kids competing hard for the remaining spots. Our outside linebackers, Parker Groves and Nate Berg, are providing the defense with solid leadership.”
On offense the Patriots return four of their five starters along the offensive line from last season: Justin Cox, Andrew Curran, Manny Johnson and Jack Kaziak. Look for the run game to solidify with Gabe Heindel and Riedel as well as fullbacks Nate Emrick and Groves.
Jake Gostisha is the quarterback for East.
“We continue to develop depth everywhere,” Schwanke said. “For us, depth might be the key. How much development and competition we get from our second team will determine our success level.”
Appleton West has a talented quarterback in Matt Reader but the Terrors struggled last season and will be a work in progress. Kaukauna has new coach Mike Moreau, who had great success at Hilbert, but expect the Ghosts to suffer through the growing pains of a new coach and system.
Predicted order of finish: 1, Kimberly; 2, Appleton North; 3, D.C. Everest; 4, Appleton East; 5, Wausau West; 6, Appleton West; 7, Wausau East; 8, Kaukauna.
Marshfield and Stevens Point shared the South title last season, but expect a pair of ex-Fox Valley Association teams to step up and contend for the title this season: Oshkosh North and Menasha.
The Bluejays reached the playoffs last season and are the lone Division 3 team in a mostly D1/D2 conference. They still handed Division 2 state semifinalist Marshfield a 42-7 drubbing during the regular season, but the key for Menasha is to find consistency in its play.
“We just hope to play up to our expectations,” Menasha coach Jeramie Korth said. “The rest of the South is so tough. We’re not saying we’re scared or anything like that, but we’re definitely going to respect our opponents, because there isn’t going to be any team that we can just blow over this year. We’re going to have to work hard for our victories, but we feel that if we play well and if we stay healthy, that we can be somewhere near the top.”
Menasha, as of this report, had yet to settle on its starting quarterback as Tyler Johnson and Corey Kuepper battle for the No. 1 spot.
Whoever wins will have plenty of talent with receiver Emanuel Jenkins a rising star as well as Dakota Reimer, Zac Hawn and Nick Siegel providing options on offense. Siegel, a fullback, will also anchor the run game with Dylan Szews the primary ball carrier. Szews was injured early last season but is a proven back.
The Bluejays defense will be led by returning all-VFA South Division first-teamer Andrew Schiessel, with free safety Carter Tesch helping at the second level.
Another developing key for Menasha is overall numbers. The Bluejays, by far the smallest school in terms of enrollment in the VFA, have around 140 players out through the three levels, allowing Korth to employ a two-platoon system at each level.
“That allows our kids to get better at their skills instead of being a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy,” Korth said. “They get to master one or two skills. We continue to get numbers up and I’m really excited with what’s going on at the middle school levels and even lower than that.”
Oshkosh North returns quarterback Nate Neveau and has another top athlete with receiver/defensive back Cooper Radtke. Stevens Point is slowly returning to its prior dominance from a few years ago, while Marshfield should also contend in the upper half of the conference.
Neenah has an exciting future with Steve Jung at the helm. He’s a 1986 Neenah graduate who helped Wausau East reach the playoffs the past two seasons. The Rockets may be a year or two away from posting some wins against the upper half of the conference, however.
Fond du Lac is an interesting team to watch, and don’t be surprised if the Cardinals, in year two of their rebuilding effort behind head coach Mike Gnewuch and assistant Steve Jorgensen, pull off an upset or two. This is a program on the rise.
Predicted order of finish: 1, Menasha; 2, Oshkosh North; 3, Stevens Point; 4, Fond du Lac; 5, Marshfield; 6, Wisconsin Rapids; 7, Oshkosh West; 8, Neenah.
— Ricardo Arguello: 920-993-1000, ext. 558, or email@example.com; On Twitter @PCRicardo