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COACHES’ PICKS

1. Sun Prairie; 2. Middleton; 3. (tie) Verona, Madison La Follette.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Sunny days: Sun Prairie and Verona tied for the conference crown last season, one game ahead of Middleton. Those teams are expected to again rule, with the coaches giving the edge to Sun Prairie. “Sun Prairie is the clear favorite in the conference with all of the returning starters they have on defense,” Madison West football coach Brad Murphy said.

New faces in familiar places: Jeremy Thornton, a former Madison East football standout, takes over for Steve Erato as the Purgolders’ coach, and Adam Bunderson is the first-year coach at Janesville Craig after serving as an assistant to Ben McCormick. Thornton, who served as an assistant at Madison West from 2011-2016, said, “There will be a noticeable change in the way East plays football this year.” Bunderson needs to replace a lot of offensive talent at Craig, but said, “I expect us to be competitive in every game. We have a lot of returning players with experience on the defensive side of the ball.”

On the rebound: After a strong first season under coach Adam Smith in 2015, Madison Memorial struggled with lofty expectations and injuries and wound up with a 3-6 record last year. “We have a completely different team than last season, from our players to our staff,” Smith said. “In order for us to play at the expectations we expect, we have to give championship effort, focus and strategy every day.” Beloit Memorial coach Rodney Wedig said he expects Madison Memorial to be among the league’s top teams because the Spartans had strong JV and freshman teams and have a lot of talent moving up.

Moving on up? Beloit Memorial hasn’t won more than one league game since 1999 and has 11 total victories in this century, said coach Rodney Wedig, who is working to buck that trend. The Purple Knights were winless in league play last season, only defeating Racine Park 30-26 Oct. 21. Wedig believes the Knights have to play better defensively and overcome “the mental hurdles of not winning.” But he is optimistic Beloit Memorial can break through with “a few wins” because of changes on his coaching staff, more strength due to an improved commitment in the weight room and a drop in talent among several middle-of-the-pack league foes. “The seniors have been with me since they were freshmen, so they are all on board and understand what we are trying to do,” he said. “Numbers are good top to bottom as we continue to build.”

Mark your calendars: On Friday, Sept. 22, Madison East will meet Madison West at Mansfield Stadium. Madison West will recognize the Regents’ 1977 state championship football team that night.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Marty Strey, sr., 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, linebacker, Sun Prairie: Strey was a first-team all-state selection by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association last year as a junior. His tackling ability and leadership skills propel the Cardinals’ defense, which also features defensive lineman Josh Dinga and defensive back Kadon Kauppinen.

Matthew Wedig, jr., 6-4, 205, receiver and punter, Beloit Memorial: Wedig is a standout player for the Purple Knights, receiving first-team all-conference accolades last year as a wideout and punter.

Jaden Stephens, sr., 5-10, 175, running back and strong safety, Madison West: This could be Stephens’ year to shine for the Regents. Coach Brad Murphy hopes to have Stephens carry the ball more often and also will use Stephens as a strong safety and outside linebacker, depending on the Regents’ defensive formation.

Dion Huff, sr., 5-8, 210, running back, and James Pabst, sr., 5-9, 201-pound running back, Middleton: Huff and Pabst are expected to provide a solid one-two punch for the Cardinals’ running game. How well they do will be affected by how quickly Middleton’s new-look offensive line gets settled.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

BELOIT MEMORIAL

Coach: Rodney Wedig, fourth year (1-27); 23rd overall (142-93).

Last year: 0-9 in conference (10th place); 1-9 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 19/17.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 5/4.

The lowdown: Wedig believes this is the most talented team he has had at Beloit Memorial, but added: “We still need to put it all together in hopes to get out of the Big Eight basement.” Matthew Wedig, the coach’s son, was a first-team all-conference choice at punter and receiver last year, and likely will also see full-time action at outside linebacker in the 3-4 defensive alignment. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior averaged 38.7 yards per punt and had 42 catches for 522 yards and five touchdowns in 2016; he’ll primarily play tight end but can split out in the pro-style offense. Angel Zuniga, a 5-10, 285-pound senior center, will anchor the offensive line and senior running back Kyle Hereford Jr. figures to lead the ground attack, but the Purple Knights will have to replace quarterback Steven Makinen. Quarterback candidates in preseason camp included Curtis Luther, Gannon Rand and Shelvin Garrett. The defense is led by 6-3, 270-pound senior defensive end Amaurii Grosskopf, who topped the team in sacks and tackles for loss in 2016; senior safety Casper Clark, who returns this season after being sidelined by injury in the opener last season; and senior linebacker Linzell Burks, one of the team’s leaders in tackles a year ago.

JANESVILLE CRAIG

Coach: Adam Bunderson, first (0-0).

Last year: 3-6 in conference (tied for seventh); 3-6 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 30/19.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 4/8.

The lowdown: Bunderson, who served as Craig’s offensive coordinator the past three seasons, was named the head coach in May. Bunderson, a 2000 Janesville Parker graduate who played quarterback for the Vikings, replaced Ben McCormick, the Cougars’ athletic director, who stepped down as football coach in April to become the school’s boys basketball coach. Craig scored more than 24 points per game in each of Bunderson’s three seasons running the multiple-formation, triple-option offense. This season’s offense is expected to be led by tight end Luke Malmanger and offensive linemen Michael Feirn and Avery Caley. “We have a lot of holes to fill on offense, as many of our top players have graduated,” Bunderson said. The Cougars’ 4-3 defense has several key returning players in defensive lineman Keeanu Benton, cornerback Jacob Ngobi, safety Tegan Christiansen and linebackers Jarrett Costello, Seth Glissendorf and Kyle Krueger. “Depth at linebacker should be a strength for us,” Bunderson said.

JANESVILLE PARKER

Coach: Clayton Kreger, third year (8-11).

Last year: 4-5 in conference (sixth place); 4-5 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 29/24.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 1/3.

The lowdown: Kreger hopes his “very young” Vikings can finish in the middle of the conference pack. “We lost a lot of starters, so (we) have a lot of unknowns at positions,” Kreger said. “We are looking to get back in the playoffs after our disappointing year in 2016. Our goal is to bring Janesville Parker back on top of the Big Eight.” Senior quarterback Jordan Bailey is the lone starter returning on offense, while senior linebacker Kyle Fuller, junior defensive back Brody Lippens and senior defensive back Sam Garvoille return as defensive starters in the 4-4 scheme. On defense, Kreger witnessed offseason improvement from senior defensive linemen Austin Letts and Dawson Shultz, junior defensive lineman Nathan Davis and junior linebacker Toby Garvoille. Offensive players who improved their stock, he said, included senior WR/DB Josiah Benjestorf, senior QB/WR Kyle Birkett, senior WR Toby Cook, senior TE/OL Harrison Creed, senior QB/TE Max Kisting, senior RB Seamus Murphy, junior WR John Bowers, junior OL Nic Graffin, junior WR Andrew Meyers, junior RB Luke Roca, junior RB Casey Vanderlinden and sophomore OL Nathan White.

MADISON EAST

Coach: Jeremy Thornton, first (0-0).

Last year: 2-7 in conference (ninth place); 2-7 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 10/9.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 4/5.

The lowdown: Thornton, a 2004 Madison East graduate and former standout at quarterback who led the Purgolders to the 2003 Big Eight title, was interim athletic director at Madison West in 2016-17. He replaces Steve Erato as coach. Thornton believes the Purgolders have talent, but added: “They are still young and will need a year to learn how to play East Side football. My team needs to learn how to play team football and focus on the details that help make teams successful.” Junior running back Charles Dean Jr. will lead the Power-I formation offense. Senior defensive tackle Nick Perez will be a key performer in the hybrid-44 defense. Others expected to be top contributors include senior receiver Devon White, senior middle linebacker Devan Marz, senior linebacker Jake Paquin and senior defensive ends Ben Handel-Kutz and Sawyer Jones.

MADISON LA FOLLETTE

Coach: Scott Swanson, fourth (21-11); fourth overall (21-11).

Last year: 5-4 in conference (tied for fourth place); 6-5 overall (eighth-seeded La Follette beat Sun Prairie, 40-13, in Division 1 in the first round of the playoffs, but lost, 22-17, to Middleton in the second round).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 13/22.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 4/4.

The lowdown: After a fourth consecutive playoff appearance under Swanson last year and a resounding upset victory over Sun Prairie in the first round of postseason, the Lancers will be young this season. La Follette will need to replace about 90 percent of its offensive production, including running back Elias Sobah and quarterback Julian Patton, but Swanson believes La Follette will be competitive each week. The key will be how fast the Lancers learn in preseason, he said. Kayvion James-Ragland is expected to be the primary ball carrier, with Anthony West, Jake Gilchrist-Kienitz and Case McCutchin returning as wide receivers. The Lancers have experience along the offensive line, which should help the ground game while Swanson determines who will be settle in as the starting quarterback. West returns for his third season as the starter at free safety and will lead the 4-2-5 defense. Gary Barnes and Peter Conley will anchor the defensive line and Gavin Parr will lead a young linebacking corps.

MADISON MEMORIAL

Coach: Adam Smith, third (11-9); ninth overall (84-18-1).

Last year: 3-6 in conference (tied for seventh place); 3-6 overall.

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 30/24.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 5/6.

The lowdown: Smith runs a multiple-spread offense, which is expected to be led by quarterback Michael Toman, receiver Elliott Grays, running back Arindis Vasser and offensive lineman Sam Jessup. Smith said the Spartans also have added newcomer Cade East to the offensive line. Madison Memorial will use a multiple four-front defense, led by linebacker Jeremiah Jordan, defensive tackle Joseph Watson and defensive backs Vasser and Connor Miller. Jessup has played defensive line, but could see time at linebacker. Smith said following the team’s process goals is the first step — one that will be necessary, and will then allow the Spartans to have success and be in the mix at the top of the conference.

MADISON WEST

Coach: Brad Murphy, second (5-5); second overall (5-5).

Last year: 5-4 in conference (tied for fourth place); 5-5 overall (the seventh-seeded Regents lost, 30-7, to Lake Geneva Badger in Division 1 in the first round of the WIAA playoffs).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 25/21.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 4/7.

The lowdown: The Regents will seek to build off last season when they advanced to postseason in Murphy’s first year. “We have a strong senior class that has good experience on defense,” Murphy said. “Offensively, we have a lot of new faces, but they are eager to contribute.” The 4-4 defense is led by linebacker David Maravilla, defensive end Gus Zeis, free safety Ryan Wendland and strong safety Jaden Stephens. Running back Stephens, quarterback Keishawn Shanklin, fullback Armoni Warfield and offensive lineman Patrick Horvath will be counted on offensively in the Regents’ Flexbone/Pistol offense. Shanklin, a 5-11, 175-pound senior, threw for 1,664 yards last season. Madison West will need several players to step up to fill the void left by receiver-returner-defensive back Terrell Carey, who signed to play college football at Northern Iowa.

MIDDLETON

Coach: Tim Simon, 14th (103-35 in 13 seasons); 14th overall (103-35).

Last year: 7-2 in conference (third place); 9-3 overall (fifth-seeded Middleton beat Oconomowoc, 20-13, in the first round of the Division 1 playoffs, beat Madison La Follette, 22-17, in the second round and lost, 28-7, to second-seeded Lake Geneva Badger in the third round.)

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 32/36.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 3/3.

The lowdown: Middleton, which stayed alive the longest in the postseason among the Big Eight schools last year, will look to keep its grip among the conference’s top teams after losing 15 starters from its lineup, including Kayden Lyles, Joe Ludwig and C.J. Fermanich. Losses were heavy along the line, as the Cardinals need to replace four offensive linemen and four defensive linemen. Simon will use a multiple-I offense led by senior quarterback Davis Roquet, senior running backs Dion Huff and James Pabst and senior receiver Brogan Brunker. Senior offensive lineman Jarrett Horst figured to be a key cog along the offensive line, but Simon said Horst currently is sidelined by a foot injury. Simon said he isn’t certain how long Horst will be out. The base 4-3 defense will feature senior linebackers Shane Bick and Jimmy Frusciante and senior defensive back Cole Ragsdale. Simon expects team speed and intelligence to be strengths.

SUN PRAIRIE

Coach: Brian Kaminski, 15th (104-45); 15th overall (104-45).

Last year: 8-1 in conference (tied for first place); 8-2 overall (top-seeded Sun Prairie lost, 40-13, to Madison La Follette in the first round of the Division 1 playoffs).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 19/22.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 6/6.

The lowdown: The Cardinals’ bid to repeat as league champion will be enhanced by a speedy and tenacious defense led by linebacker Marty Strey, defensive lineman Josh Dinga and defensive back Kaden Kauppinen, a North Dakota recruit. Kaminski considers Strey “the best leader we have ever had,” while Dinga “has the size and speed to have an impact on every play.” On offense, Kaminski has decided to install a spread offense. The Cardinals have depth at running back with Draven Peeples, Brian McKenzie, Colin Fluno and Tyler Precia and experience along the offensive line, led by Dominick Cooper, Ben Johnson and Anthony Villanueva. Jack Zander is expected to play quarterback. Alex Oakley has been a standout kicker and punter for the Cardinals. “We expect to compete for the conference championship,” Kaminski said. “This should be a team with very good overall team speed and has excellent leadership.”

VERONA

Coach: Dave Richardson, 18th (137-53); 26th overall (166-90).

Last year: 8-1 in conference (tied for first place); 9-2 overall (third-seeded Verona beat Hartland Arrowhead, 21-17, in the first round of the Division 1 playoffs, but lost, 22-14, to Lake Geneva Badger in the second round).

Letterwinners (returning/lost): 40/40.

Starters returning (offense/defense): 6/3.

The lowdown: The Wildcats will have a young team after sharing the conference title with Sun Prairie last year. Richardson said he hopes Verona can finish in the top half of the conference and again advance to the playoffs. A small junior class means the Wildcats will need some sophomores to contribute. A majority of the offensive line returns for Verona, which uses a Pistol/Wing-T offense. Quarterback Aaron Young saw some playing time last year and returns this season to lead the offense. Other significant offensive contributors should include senior offensive linemen Jordan Recob, Timmy Curtis, T.J. Becker and Tristan Largent, senior tight end/running back Carson Bull and senior split end Bui Clements. Verona lost a lot of talented defensive line depth, but Richardson believes the inside linebackers and defensive backs will be strong points of the defense. Leading the way will be junior linebacker Dylan Bourne, defensive back Clements and senior defensive linemen Reagan Stauffer and Jaylin Thompson.