Regionsports.com’s new weekly feature – “Three & Out” will take a look at each team in a football conference and identify three things to look for as the 2011 season approaches. This week we focus on the Northwest Crossroads Conference.
1st Down: Most teams have graduation issues, and while the 59ers aren’t losing a whole lot numbers wise, they are losing a big piece of their offensive puzzle in quarterback Demetri Blanco. The Valpo University bound signal-caller was a dual threat for Andrean from under center and his versatility will surely be missed by Phil Mason and staff. Junior Mark Dravet played well after Blanco left the Regional against SB St. Joseph’s due to an injury, but he’s unproven and won’t put fear in to opposing defensive coordinators like Blanco did on a weekly basis.
2nd Down: Thanks to IHSAA realignment, the 59ers have dropped down a class and will be featured in class 2A during the post-season. This brings both good news and bad news for Andrean. Starting with the bad, the sectional road may have gotten a little tougher. Andrean has dominated sectional play the last four seasons, outscoring opponents 478-122 (an average margin of victory of just under 30 per game), but the drop to 2A puts them in the same bracket as Rensselaer and Wheeler. Now there are some other teams that don’t have a history of post-season success (to put it nicely), so the 59ers could get the benefit of the draw, but we can’t pencil them in to the Regionals just yet, like we’ve been able to in the past.
3rd Down: Now for the good post-season news. There’s no question that the 59ers have dominated their sectional in the past four years…but Regionals have been another story – four consecutive sectional titles and no trips to semi-state. Thankfully for Andrean, if they were to get out of the sectional, the road to semi-state looks fairly easy compared to the competition they’ve seen recently in Regionals. There’s no Jimtown & no South Bend St. Joseph caliber teams there which means an Andrean vs. Bishop Luers semi-state has serious potential. A 2A semi-state featuring two private schools – nobody’s going to have issues with that.
1st Down: It’s a numbers game for the Panthers and in the past few years, that’s one of the games that they’ve been losing. Whether it’s a lack of kids willing to do the work or one of the many other factors, there’s no doubt that the roster for Griffith has been shrinking. From a roster numbering in the mid 70s in 2007, down to the mid 50s in 2008 & 2009 and shrinking to just 42 players last season, the Panthers are going to have to add depth if they want to return to the glory days.
2nd Down: Speaking of the glory days, how far removed is the Griffith program from being one of the Region’s most dominant programs? After a streak of appearing in the sectional championship that lasted over two decades, the Panthers have not only failed to reach the title game in each of the past two seasons, but didn’t even advance out of the first round last year. Not only are the Panthers no-longer the sectional favorite, but they have to re-establish themselves as contenders – how is this team going to adjust to their new identity?
3rd Down: Ok, the rumors of Russ Radtke’s coaching demise following the 2010 season seem to have been exaggerated, but there’s little doubt that the venerable Panther coach has more pressure on him now (coming from all sides) than he has during his Griffith, and probably entire, coaching career. With the combination of the points mentioned in 1st & 2nd down, plus assistant coaching staff turnover and sagging attendance at the Boneyard, it’s fair to wonder how much longer Radtke will be in charge of this program. There’s a school of thought that says a coach who has accomplished as much as Radtke has at Griffith should be allowed to stay as long as he would like, but not everybody thinks that way…
1st Down: The last time the Trojans won multiple games in a single season? 2006. The last time the Trojans finished at or above the .500 mark? 2004. That being said, this next statement is going to sound silly, but hear me out. Highland made progress last season. Yes, they finished 1-9, but they found themselves in more close games than they’ve had in years, including a near upset of Wheeler to open the season.
2nd Down: In no place is the progress more evident than on the offensive side of the ball. For the first season since the 2003 campaign, the Trojans didn’t get shutout in a single game. While in three of those contests, they could only muster single digits, any points look better than a big fat zero on the board. The Trojans offense MIGHT be able to keep that offensive rhythm going into 2011, but they’ll also have to learn to stop teams from scoring on them, or at least slow them down. The offense may be better, but they’ll have a tough time competing if the defense gives up nearly 35 points a game like they did in 2010.
3rd Down: With that being said, progress has to be turned in to wins and over the last three seasons, the Trojans have only defeated one program, Hammond High, and those single victories mark the only two Highland wins since 2008. If the Trojans want to prove they are on the right path, they are going to have to do more than keep it close with some teams. Are they going to beat teams like Morton, Lowell, and Andrean? Probably not. But, they do have Lew Wallace, Kankakee Valley, Hobart & Griffith on their schedule and those squads are all vulnerable. Oh yeah, and the Wildcats are on the schedule too, so you know the Trojans are looking forward to that one.
1st Down: After eight seasons roaming the sidelines, Wally McCormack is no longer the head coach at Hobart. McCormack’s Brickie teams won 60% of their games and captured sole or partial conference titles three times, but the playoffs are where the Brickies made a name for themselves and the Hobart sectional title drought has continued. Taking over for McCormack will be a man who was part of those legendary Brickie teams in Ryan Turley. The first year coach, who played under Don Howell, will look to bring back a little bit of that Brickie history which has made them one of the most respected programs in the state.
2nd Down: There’s another absence that is going to be noticed by the “Brickie Backers” in 2011, and that is Jamar Merritt. The do-everything back was one of the best big play makers at any position in the Region during the 2010 season and it’s hard to see how his absence won’t be felt by the purple and gold. Unlike most player departures, this isn’t a case of Merritt graduating – his exit from the team was spurred on by his own actions, so maybe this will be a case of addition by subtraction, but Hobart is going to have to somehow replace his big play ability – easier said than done.
3rd Down: One of the other NCC teams affected by realignment, the Bricks were jettisoned out of Sectional #9 an will now play in Sectional #10. What does that mean for Hobart’s playoff prospects? Longer road trips, less familiarity (except for Lowell & KV) and the potential of playing former 5A powerhouse Mishawaka who is now in the same bracket as the Brickies. New Prairie, SB Clay, SB Riley and SB Washington are also potential playoff opponents for Hobart, which means they are entering new territory. Not such a bad thing when you consider the past 13 years.
1st Down: The Mike Peo era got off to a great start down in KV with an 8-2 record in 2006, but it was all down hill after that as the Kougars have gone a combined 11-30 since that season. Replacing Peo on the sidelines is Brad Stewart, an assistant at KV last season, and most notably a member of Kirk Kennedy’s staff at Lowell. Maybe Stewart can bring some of that RDP with now that he’s the head man at Kankakee Valley (KVP?), because they sure could use it.
2nd Down: There’s really not a whole lot to say about this Kankakee Valley offense. 10 games. Shutout five times, including a stretch of four games in a row. Improvement is not only necessary if the Kougars want to do better than their one win in 2010, it’s necessary if they at least want to make things respectable.
3rd Down: What little offense the Kougars displayed last year won’t be helped by the loss of standout running back Dylan Patrick who graduated following the 2010 season. Patrick missed several games due to injury, but still ran for over 900 yards and 10 touchdowns. His production both out of the backfield and as a defensive back will be sorely missed by the new Kougar coaching staff.*
1st Down: Some teams in this conference (see Highland & KV) would be thrilled at a 6 win season. For Lowell, 2010 was a disappointment at that mark. But while the wins may have been down and the losses up, Lowell might not have had as much of a letdown year as some might say. The season opened with a big loss to Crown Point, but the Devils’ other two regular season defeats were by a combined four points. While the sectional opening loss to a tough Concord team by 31 might leave a bad taste in the mouth of Lowell fans, this team still has a lot of RDP left in them.
2nd Down: To paraphrase Rick Pitino: “Kirk Kennedy is not walking through that door, fans.” Keith Kilmer has a chance to put his own stamp on the program in year two of the PK (Post-Kirk) era. Last year, Kilmer had several experienced players and continued to do many of things the Kirk Kennedy way. Look for that to change this year. Maybe the changes won’t be radical, but don’t be surprised if they are there. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will be up to the spectator.
3rd Down: The seven year sectional title streak is over thanks to that big loss to Concord to open up post-season play. The good news for the Devils is that the Minutemen are no longer in their sectional bracket. The bad news is that Mishawaka stands in the way of starting a new streak. Unlike Hobart, who is now in this sectional, Lowell has a track record of success against the South Bend teams that are in this grouping, so we’ll give the Devils the benefit of the doubt. But, the Cavemen present a tougher challenge, not that Lowell isn’t up for it. A Lowell-Mishawaka sectional championship at “The Cave”? Can we just skip ahead to Week #12?
1st Down: Moving up to Class 5A, where they’ve resided the past four seasons, has not been a boon to the Mustang program, with no sectional championship appearances to speak of. With only one 5A team on their regular season schedule and belonging to a conference made up of 4 & 3A teams, the Mustangs might have been inexperienced when it comes to playing the big boys. Replacing Bishop Noll with Chesterton on their 2011 docket will only help in that regard come tourney time.
2nd Down: One of the keys for Munster this season if they are aiming to win more than seven games (which they haven’t done since 2003) will be the continuing development of quarterback Mark Strbjak. The senior came on to the scene as a sophomore and had a great stretch to open the season, but mid-season struggles saw him benched in favor of Josh Lukoshus. As the man under center last year, Strbjak led the ‘Stangs to a nearly 30 points per game average, which will get the job done most nights. How he improves in his final year as both a player and as the leader of the team, will go a long way in determining how his team fares.
3rd Down: The ‘Stangs have won seven games in each of the past three seasons, so at least they’re consistent if anything. The NCC race is wide open, so another season of 6 or 7 regular season wins should get Munster some conference hardware, especially since they are one of the few NCC teams returning a veteran quarterback which will help in highly contested conference matchups.
*An earlier edition of Three & Out had Patrick returning for his senior season, which has been corrected
Three & Out will return next week as we profile the teams of the DAC.
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