Luther Prep Phoenix (Watertown) - Capitol North
Coach: Justin Gregorius (5th Season), 9-27 Overall
2016 Result: 2-7 (1-4), 5th in the Capitol North
Three-Year Record: 9-18
2016 All-Conference Honors: 1 First-Team, 5 Second-Team, 4 Honorable Mention (10 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 4 First-Team, 15 Second-Team, 7 Honorable Mention (26 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (6): OL/DL Josh Baur (First Team-DL) (Second Team-DL in 2015) (WSN Class of 2018 Players To Watch-DL), Sr.; OL/LB Abel Bain (Second Team-LB) (Second Team-LB in 2015), Sr.; RB/LB David Hirsch (Honorable Mention-LB), Sr.; RB/LB Joe Hirsch (Honorable Mention-LB), Sr.; OL/DL Simeon Glende (Honorable Mention-DL), Sr.; WR/DB/K/P Micah Otto (Honorable Mention-P), Sr.
Other Players To Watch: QB/DB Jonah Schulz, Sr.; RB/DB Lucas Martin, Jr.; RB/LB Preston Borchardt, Jr.; RB/DB Brice Guse, Jr.
In 2016, a young but talented defense kept the Phoenix in most of their games during a 2-7 campaign, before giving up 84 points combined in their final two outings.
This season, most of that talented defense is back, now as all-conference-level seniors looking to get Luther Prep back into the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
The Phoenix will play all three of the conference's top contenders for the Capitol North title in Columbus, Lake Mills, and Lodi at home this season, something no other team in the conference can claim.
For fifth-year Luther Prep Head Coach Justin Gregorius, he is hoping the strides his now-graduated players made in the program laid a foundation for success in the future.
"The outgoing senior class were freshmen when I took over the head coaching position," said Gregorius, who was an assistant at Winnebago Lutheran for five seasons before coming to Luther Prep. "They were the first class completely in the program. Lifting, offense and defensive philosophy... they bought into it. We will miss them, but we also look forward to the new guys coming up."
Five different returning seniors earned honors from the Capitol North, led by defensive lineman Josh Baur, who was named to the first team last year after being honorable mention in 2015. The 285-pound lineman was named one of the class of 2018's players to watch at WisSports.net.
An area of strength for Luther Prep this year will be the linebackers, with three returning seniors who all earned all-conference honors. Two-time second-team all-conference linebacker Abel Bain returns, as will twins David and Joe Hirsch, who both made honorable mention last year.
Another senior defensive lineman, Simeon Glende, was also named honorable mention at the position in 2016.
Coach Gregorius acknowledges that they "have many all-conference players returning this year," but is also excited for how his offense has developed in the offseason.
"[Another] key player returning will be [senior quarterback] Jonah Schulz," said Gregorius. "Having a year of experience under his belt will be huge for him and our team."
Without the top two rushers from last year returning to the Phoenix, Gregorius says he expects other players to step right in and succeed at running back in 2017.
"Our backfield will be improved this year," said Coach Gregorius. "Lucas Martin got some playing time on varsity last year. Joe Hirsch, Preston Borchardt, and Brice Guse will all get time."
On the schedule, the Phoenix will play three straight games on the road to open the season. First up is 2016 playoff participant University School, who went 8-3 a year ago. Last year, Luther Prep was shut out 28-0 in that game. Kettle Moraine Lutheran awaits in Week 2, although the Chargers didn't win a game last season. The Phoenix wrap up the road trip with Westfield, who earned their only win of last season over a winless Wisconsin Dells squad.
The Phoenix will play at home for the first time on September 8, in Week 4, against the second-place team in the Capitol South from a year ago, Waterloo. Conference play begins for the Phoenix one week later when they welcome Columbus to town, before wrapping up the homestand against another Capitol North top program in Lake Mills.
Luther Prep gets a road game at Poynette to close out September (the only conference team the Phoenix beat last year), then will face Lodi at home on October 6 before finishing the regular season against Lakeside Lutheran on the road. The Phoenix will play all three of the conference coaches' top contenders for the Capitol North title in Columbus, Lake Mills, and Lodi at home this season, something no other team in the conference can claim.
There are no easy weeks in the Capitol North, as the coaches will tell you. Lodi, Lake Mills, and Columbus top the coaches' picks as the conference favorites, but every team brings back talent from a season ago. Luther Prep is as much in the mix as anyone for a playoff spot.
"The Capitol North is again tough," said Coach Gregorius, listing off returning players and strengths of each conference team. "It is always very very competitive."
--Jimmie Kaska @jimmekaska