Middle Border Conference
Somerset defeated Durand (34-27) and Osceola (38-14) in back-to-back weeks to start the conference season and never looked back, besting its closest competitors by two games and finishing unbeaten in league play at 7-0.
Five teams from the Middle Border qualified for the postseason as Ellsworth and Baldwin-Woodville also posted winning conference records.
The Spartans compiled a 9-0 regular-season mark, reaching the playoffs for a sixth straight time. They made their first 11 trips in D-5, including a state title in 2002 and runner-up finishes in 2004-05 before bumping up to D-4 the last two years.
Last season they advanced to Level 4, defeating St. Croix Falls, 50-7, Bloomer, 32-13 and Tomahawk, 26-20 in overtime. They fell to eventual runner-up Kettle Moraine Lutheran, 37-20.
Coach Bruce Larson's squad lost seven key first-team all-conference selections, including two-way Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-State lineman and future UW-Eau Claire player Burt Guerkink, also an all-Northwest pick; quarterback Justin Trautmiller, who gained 953 yards rushing in league games and 1,365 overall; and all-region second-team selection Tony Martin, the conference's top ground gainer with 1,210 yards and 1,908 overall; and first-team defensive back Evan Kowalski, a recruit of NCAA Division II team Northern Michigan after making the all-region second unit. Martin led the league in scoring with 118 points and Trautmiller was second with 102.
However, Somerset returns a first-team defensive lineman in senior Darrin Emmeck and an honorable mention offensive tackle in junior Rob Wendt.
It will be a challenge to see if the Spartans can repeat what they did in leading the Middle Border in rushing offense (2,594), scoring (284 points), scoring defense (101 points) and rushing defense (884 yards).
The Panthers bounced back from dropping their first two league outings to win five in a row, including a thrilling 20-14 overtime triumph at Osceola in the second-to-last weekend of the regular season.
That boost helped Durand finish 6-3 in the regular season and catapulted it into the D-4 playoffs for a third consecutive fall, the school's 12th postseason berth. The Panthers dropped their opener to Tomahawk, 14-7.
Durand must replace key all-conference performers in defensive lineman Mike Zika, who'll be competing in track at Iowa State after making the all-region first team, and center Logan Boigenzahn and several other players who received all-league recognition, including honorable mention running back Derek Radle, who'll be attending UW-Stout after surpassing the 1,000-yard plateau.
Fortunately, the Panthers do have second-team defensive back Nathan Prissel after the senior tied for the league interception lead with four thefts.
Durand scored only 144 points in league outings, but it finished second in defense at 116 points, 68 of them coming in its two losses.
The Chieftains lost both of their nonconference contests but bounced back nicely to gain a playoff berth for a fifth year in a row and 14th time in school history. They suffered a 21-7 loss to Bloomer in their D-4 opener.
Osceola also lost considerable talent to graduation, including two-way all-league players Tyler Muckenhirn (defensive back and kicker) and Hans Johnson (defensive line and offensive tackle) and running backs Tyler Traynor and Jerrod Tarman, who both surpassed 900 yards rushing in league outings. Traynor finished with 1,171 yards and 14 TDs, while Tarman totaled 1,108 and 11.
Muckenhirn was named to the all-Northwest first team as a kicker, drilling four of five field goals and 27 of 30 extra points last year and finishing his career at 12 of 14 and 58 of 67, respectively.
With no returning players carrying all-league recognition, the Chieftains could be hard-pressed to rush for more than 2,000 yards and better the 200-point plateau like they did a year ago.
The Panthers reached the postseason by virtue of their 4-3 league mark, which featured a 34-16 victory against Durand. Their three conference setbacks included a one-point loss to Baldwin-Woodville and four-point defeat to Osceola.
Ellsworth finished 5-4 in the regular season and made its second straight and seventh overall postseason trip, falling to Mosinee, 42-0, in the first round of D-3.
The Panthers lost two-way all-conference selection and Minnesota-Duluth recruit Ben Helmer, who played tight end—28 catches and 10 TDs in league contests--and defensive back, and several other top performers.
However, they get several offensive weapons back: Quarterback Josh Miska and fellow seniors Ross Sweig at running back and Nick Niedfeldt at wide receiver.
Miska topped the Middle Border with 1,414 yards passing, completing 82 of 157 attempts while throwing 20 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. His season totals were 2,057 yards, 24 TD tosses and seven INTs.
Sweig finished third in league action with 21 receptions, which he turned into 217 yards and two scores. Meanwhile, Niedfeldt turned four of his eight catches into touchdowns.
Ellsworth also had the league's stingiest pass defense, allowing only 344 total yards.
The Blackhawks could be the league favorite this year with a host of players back who earned all-conference recognition after they finished 4-3 in league play and 6-3 overall in the regular season.
Baldwin-Woodville made its 14th postseason appearance, losing 49-41 to Spooner in the first round of D-4, their first playoff contest since 2002.
Leading the returning players is senior Bryce Lunzer, who was a first-team choice at punter (34.3 yards), second-team pick at defensive back (three interceptions) and an honorable mention selection at wide receiver (16 catches for 249 yards).
Sophomore Jake Keefer also returns after earning second-team honors at defensive end and honorable mention status at tight end (10 for 171).
The Blackhawks also will rely on seniors Spencer Corey, Jesse Rose, Cody Ninneman and Dylan DeMotts.
Corey was a second-team center, Rose made the second unit at running back, Ninneman was second team at running back and honorable mention at defensive back, and DeMotts was an honorable mention quarterback.
Ninneman scored 54 points and gained 490 yards, while DeMotts passed for 771 yards and 11 touchdowns.
One of the players they'll have to replace is second-team kicker Zach Paul, who's going to UW-River Falls.
The Warriors finished 2-5 in league play and ended the regular season at 3-6 after losing three games by six points or less. Amery has missed the postseason two of the past three seasons but has qualified nine times since 1996.
Amery must replace the likes of two-way all-Middle Border pick Shane Webber (and all-region second-team choice), second-team wide receiver Matt Rubenzer (25 catches for 316 yards) and honorable mention guard Joe Lindberg. Also gone is quarterback Andy Stewart, who passed for 529 yards.
The top returning players include second-team defensive end Bryndan Schock and honorable mention kicker Shawn McLeod.
Also scheduled to be back are senior Brock Luehman and junior Tanner Tryggestad, who led the team in rushing with 470 and 492 yards, respectively.
The Tigers' only league victory was a 20-7 decision against Prescott as they finished 1-6 and 1-8 overall. New Richmond failed to qualify for the postseason for the fifth consecutive year and has made the playoffs only once this decade after reaching them seven times in the 1990s.
New Richmond must replace such standouts as second-team defensive end Dustin Frank, second-team offensive tackle Brandon Weinke and honorable mention defensive back John Peper.
The Tigers must also replace running back Ben Bartels and quarterback Hayden Zimmerman, but they should get senior ball toter Troy Cran back.
The Cardinals struggled mightily with an 0-7 league showing and 0-9 overall finish after making the school's eighth playoff appearance in 2005.
Prescott's only all-conference selection was honorable mention center Ben Krings, but he graduated.
Prescott gave up more than 40 points on four occasions, but it needs to bolster an offense that never scored more than 14 points.
The Tigers will miss running back Alex Johnson, who caught 18 balls for 217 yards in league outings. However, they should move forward behind senior quarterback Jake Olson, who completed 60 of 139 pass attempts for 814 yards against conference foes, finishing with six touchdowns and four interceptions.