On paper — and probably on the field — the best opening-night matchup of the area high school football season is Hesston at Garden Plain.
The Swathers were 8-2 last year and the Owls were 9-2, including a 21-20 heart-stopper over Hesston in last year's Class 3A playoffs.
But that was last year. However, both teams appear to be loaded for outstanding seasons again this year.
"Garden Plain is a well-respected opponent based upon their tradition of fielding great football teams," Hesston third-year coach Clint Rider said. "Obviously we've had to chew on a one-point loss for the last nine months and our players have worked extremely hard to give us the opportunity to be successful on Friday night. I think the keys to victory in closely matched teams early in the year comes down largely to who makes the least amount of mistakes and who plays with great discipline."
The Owls have a big-time playmaker in Nate Pauly.
"Nate Pauly is probably the fastest, shiftiest player in 3A, so we will need to know where he is at all times because he is a game-breaker," Rider said. "It will be interesting to see if they change their schemes much from last year based on new personnel."
The Swathers will have some new personnel as well, but probably more veterans than the Owls.
"We feel good about where we are at," Rider said. "Our players have worked extremely hard and our coaching staff has done a great job teaching and leading in the first three weeks to get us ready. I always say that as a coach you probably never feel like you're completely ready, but it's time to play a game to see where you're at."
The Swathers certainly have the pieces to continue the success they have enjoyed under Rider, who is 26-5 in three seasons.
"We have had some young players on the offensive and defensive lines that have stepped up to fill roles that are further along in their development that we had anticipated at this point," Rider said. "That's attributed to their work ethic and desire to improve themselves throughout the offseason. That being said, those are still the two areas that need the most improvement, but that will take time and repetition. We love where we are with our linebackers and secondary on defense, and our backfield and receiver corps on offense will be early season strengths as those other position groups improve."
• Inman at Trinity Catholic •
Lance Sawyer has returned to his alma mater and he’s excited how the Teutons have adapted to the coaching change after back-to-back 1-8 seasons.
“I have been surprised with how quickly we have been able to pick up the new system,” Sawyer said. “It is starting to develop and the guys are starting to run it with some fluidity. We must work on valuing the football. At times we are a little too loose with the football.”
Trinity has been a rock-solid program and will be a good measuring stick for the new-look Teutons.
“Trinity will be a good team. They return several key players that had a lot of success last season,” Sawyer said. “I expect them to be tough up front and quick in the backfield. They seem to be a team that will not make mistakes and a team that will make you work for your yardage.”
The start could be the key, Sawyer said.
“We must come out with a focus,” he said. “We need to be able to have a strong opening quarter. We must be able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We must limit our turnovers. And finally, we must tackle well.”
• Solomon at Canton-Galva •
The Eagles, coming off a 1-8 season, have a massive undertaking.
Solomon has been a powerhouse in recent years, though graduation stripped it of some of its stars.
“Solomon is big, fast and does not like to lose,” second-year C-G coach Dustin Patee said. “Keys to victory are to win the turnover margin, the big-play battle and we must run the ball well. If we can jump out early or keep it close late, we might be able to get into their heads.”
Patee will have a team that is definitely improved as the numbers are up slightly.
“I think we are as ready as possible. Solomon is a solid team, but we have worked very hard this preseason,” Patee said. “We are starting to become physical, learning to strike is a huge factor in high school football. If we can learn to play low and strike, our youth will not affect us. An area to work on is experience, until we hit the field I'm not for sure how a couple young men will react to the atmosphere of the Friday night lights.”
• Smoky Valley at Halstead •
The Vikings could have one of the area’s most difficult openers.
Halstead is coming off a tremendous season and while it has lost some key players, there’s still a good nucleus returning.
“Halstead is very good, we will have to play extremely well to win,” second-year Viking coach Tim Lambert said. “They have a great system and run the ball very well. Their fullback from last year is very good, but so are their tailback and quarterback."
Lambert played a lot of underclassmen during last year’s 2-7 season and that experience will come in handy against the Dragons.
“I feel like we are close to where we need to be,” Lambert said. “My feelings are not always accurate. Usually the first game you find some things that need work that you did not know about. We just need to play a game and see where we are.”
• Centre at Little River •
Veteran Little River coach Paul Dold said last week’s dress rehearsal was an eye-opener.
“After our intrasquad scrimmage last Friday night, it is clear we have a lot of work to do,” said Dold, whose team was 5-4 last season and 12-8 over the last two. “We need to improve our defensive discipline and aggressiveness. We also need to improve our offensive timing and knowing the playbook.”
Centre, 4-6 last season, is under new leadership, so Dold said his team has to prepare for anything.
“They have a new coach,” Dold said. “Coach (Matt) Warta played at Centre in the late ‘90s when they had some very salty teams. There are a lot of unknowns system-wise, but we do know they return a couple of very good upperclassmen.”
• Moundridge at Marion •
Former McPherson College assistant Jeremiah Meeks is the area's other first-year coach.
Meeks inherits quite a bit of talent from last year's 3-6 team. He has a lot of potential in the skill positions and a couple of quality linemen up front.
Marion has strong tradition and will be a tough test for the Wildcats. It is coming off a 7-2 season.
Meeks could not be reached for comment.