It’s beginning to look a lot like … 2011.
That’s when Cedar Grove-Belgium’s football team — behind the high-powered running game provided by then-junior Alex Giles — came to within a game of advancing to the Division 5 state championship.
This year’s team hasn’t gotten quite that far yet. But the Rockets are knocking on the proverbial door after cruising comfortably to a 50-7 win last week against Bonduel and setting up a Level 3 face-off tonight against second-seeded Kewaunee. If they win tonight, the Rockets will be right back to where they were two years ago — within a game of State.
Perhaps most remarkable about this year’s Rockets team is the difference in style between it and its 2011 predecessor. That team boasted a big offensive line that gave Giles — who finished his high school career last season with more than 5,000 rushing yards — plenty of room to move on the ground. In just his junior season alone, capped by Cedar Grove’s gut-wrenching 49-48 loss in a Level 4 contest to Lancaster, Giles ran for more than 2,600 yards and scored 36 rushing touchdowns.
Coach Chris Zablocki knew his team dynamic would be a bit different this year, though, and the veteran coach took efforts to tweak his team’s playbook to match this year’s crop of players, who are still capable of running the pigskin with force but who are also a bit more predisposed to airing it out.
“One thing that we, I think we’ve proved, (is) that we have three or four guys that can score for us,” Zablocki said recently. “… With having such a lot of weapons this year, it gives us a lot more possibilities.”
While he said his teams in the past have been built around a big offensive line paired with a hard-charging running back, the Rockets recently have had to modify their style, if only slightly, to accommodate a nimbler and more finesse-oriented offense that balances running with a spindly passing game.
The results of those modifications have been tangible. While Cedar Grove has had strong quarterbacks in recent years, none has been as prolific as Drew Emperley. Through 11 games this season, the senior has thrown for more than 1,500 yards — averaging more than 137 yards per game — and has 21 TDs and a 113.7 passer rating. In the team’s most recent second-round playoff win last Friday, he slinged four touchdown passes.
It helps, of course, that Emperley has a strong cast of receivers to whom he can throw — a cast that’s led by Logan Peterson, who has 36 catches for 824 yards and 13 touchdowns so far this year, but which is complemented nicely by more-than-capable receivers Aaron Chier (14 catches-344 yards-6 touchdowns) and Joshua Winkleff (13-207-1).
Cedar Grove (10-1) will need its offense to click again tonight against Kewaunee (10-1), a team that surged to second place in the Olympian-Packerland Large Conference this year behind the big playmaking abilities of quarterback Caleb Johnson and a few strong running backs.
Johnson has been the clear anchor of the Storm’s offense, throwing for 1,751 yards and 19 TDs this year, and rushing for another 289 yards and seven scores.
Austin Kassner is leading the team’s ground attack with 864 total yards — more than 6 per carry — and eight TDs. Austin Richard, meanwhile, has averaged more than 5 yards per carry for eight touchdowns.
“I think we have a very formidable foe ahead of us,” Zablocki said, noting Kewaunee boasts “a very storied program” with a solid history of producing state-caliber teams.
“I think if we just take it one step at a time, and the ball bounces our way a few times … we may have a shot at (State),” he added.
“As far as a coach, you always think you can make it to State. … We’ve got to just take it a step at a time and we’ll see what happens.”