Clinton Cougars - Rock Valley
Coach: Jeff Spiwak (5th Season), 31-22 Overall (4-4 Playoffs in 4 appearances); 9th Career Season, 47-46 Overall (4 years, Parker High School in Arizona '08-'11, 16-24)
2016 Result: 11-2 (8-1), 1st in the Rock Valley (Lost to Cedar Grove-Belgium 42-35 in Level 4 of the D5 Playoffs)
Three-Year Record: 22-11 (3-3 playoffs)
2016 All-Conference Honors: 10 First-Team, 5 Second-Team, 3 Honorable Mention (18 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 20 First-Team, 17 Second-Team, 9 Honorable Mention (46 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (7): RB/LB Connor Mullooly (First Team-LB) (First Team-LB in 2015) (WSN Class of 2018 Players to Watch - LB), Sr.; RB/DB Zach Krause (First Team-DB) (Second Team-DB) (WSN Class of 2018 Players to Watch - DB), Sr.; QB/DB/P Tyler Halsted (Second Team-QB) (Honorable Mention-QB in 2015), Sr.; OL/DL Clayton Hahn (Second Team-OL), Sr.; WR/DB Austin Beaumont (Honorable Mention-DB), Sr.; OL/DL Eric Paschke (Honorable Mention-OL), Sr.; OL/DL Kenny Ballmer (Honorable Mention-OL), Sr.
Other Players To Watch: RB/LB Colin Warpula, Sr.; WR/DB Grayson Johanson, Sr.; OL/DL Cody Glass, Sr.; OL/DL Sam Duggan, Sr.; TE/LB Steve Espinoza, Sr.; RB/LB Jackson Nelson, Jr.; OL/DL Clayton Jeffers, Jr.
BIG Games: August 18 at Evansville/Albany, at Big Foot September 1, vs Jefferson September 15, at Turner September 22
Clinton's football program reached unprecedented heights in 2016.
Prior to the arrival of 5th-year Clinton Head Coach Jeff Spiwak, who was coaching in Arizona at Parker High School before coming to Clinton, the Cougars had never won a playoff game. Last year, they won three. All told under Oregon (WI) native Spiwak, who also serves as the district's athletic director, Clinton has gone 4-4 in the playoffs.
"It is going to a fun season in our conference. Every week poses a different challenge, and no team can be overlooked. I believe there will be a lot of parity in the conference... it is wide open. I expect the Clinton Cougars to be able to compete for a third straight conference championship." - Clinton Head Coach Jeff Spiwak
"Last year's playoff run was special our kids, coaches, the school, and community in general," said Coach Spiwak. "It was by far the the best run in the history of Cougar football."
While the coach certainly deserves some of the credit, the players have also been showing up as some of the best the area has to offer. Consider returning linebacker Connor Mullooly, named one of the state's players to watch in the class of 2018 by WisSports.net: he's been a first-team all-conference pick the past two seasons.
Mullooly leads a talented group of returning seniors, seven of whom have made the all-conference awards list. Those players returning will attempt to replace an outgoing senior class, over a dozen players, with nine all-conference honors, including seven on the first team.
"Regardless of graduating talent, it creates a new expectation for all stakeholders in our football program," said Coach Spiwak. "Our graduating seniors were a special group of kids. They worked hard, listened, and, most importantly, had fun. It was a group that elevated the brotherhood associated with being a Clinton Cougar football player. That was a group that we had for four years in our system, and you could really see that in their execution of the game, football I.Q., and team-oriented mindset."
Two-way all-conference selection Zach Krause is back in the senior class, who earned a first-team selection at defensive back and made second-team as a running back. Clinton's quarterback, Tyler Halsted, is also back as a second-team pick, after making honorable mention as a sophomore in 2015.
Krause and Halsted both ran for over 700 yards last year, with nine and 18 touchdowns respectively (Halsted added 11 more passing touchdowns as well for 29 total; Krause had a receiving touchdown for 10 total). Those two players will have to help replace the offensive production of Jordan Jones (1,651 rushing, receiving, and kick return yards) and Peyton Pppe (1,970 rushing/receiving/return yards, plus a return touchdown on kickoff, punt, interception, and fumbles, which he did twice, and 16 rushing touchdowns, a receiving touchdown, and one more through the air).
Connor Mullooly will likely see a workload increase in the backfield after 43 carries in 2016. Other running backs to watch include junior Jackson Nelson and senior Colin Warpula, who both reached 100 yards rushing on a relative handful of carries behind the star power the Cougars had in the backfield.
"The fun part about coaching is I have no idea who is or is not going to step up," said Coach Spiwak. "I know we are a team that wants to build of off [last] season."
Clinton will turn over most of its receiving corps, bringing back senior Grayson Johanson as their most productive receiver from a season ago, along with Krause out of the backfield. Austin Beaumont returns to the wide receiver spot as well after grabbing a touchdown pass in 2016. The tight end position will have senior Steve Espinoza return.
Clinton's success on offense starts up front, where they bring back three seniors with all-conference honors. Clayton Hahn (second team), Eric Paschke, and Kenny Balmer (honorable mention) all return, with several members of the junior class incoming (six total) listed as two-way linemen as well.
"As a unit, I think our O-line has the potential to be as good or better than our line from last year, which led the entire state in rushing," said Spiwak (Clinton ran for 4,774 yards in 2016, averaging 367 yards per game).
Defensively, the team will be strong at linebacker. Connor Mullooly leads the group that also includes seniors Steve Espinoza (sixth on the team in tackles a year ago) and Jackson Nelson (seventh). There's depth in the group as well, with players like Colin Warpula having significant contributions in 2016.
With Cole Ciochon, Robert Billington, Nick Dammon, and Manuel Coltiere all graduating (four of the team's five top tacklers from last season), the defensive line will need to find the next wave of playmakers to fill some huge roles. Seniors Cody Glass (13 tackles last year) and Sam Duggan (11), as well as junior Clayton Jeffers, could find some playing time along the front lines.
The secondary will miss the outstanding Jordan Jones, but with two all-conference players (Zach Krause, first team, and Austin Beaumont, second team) returning, Clinton will have some strength in this area as well. Grayson Johanson had an interception and 20 tackles last year, and some of the same players eyeing playing time at wide receiver could make their way into the secondary too.
Several players, including Krause and Nelson, took kick and punt returns last year, and it may be sort of a committee approach this year with so many talented runners. Punter Tyler Halsted, also the team's quarterback, returns to that role.
"We have some very talented football players returning for this season, most of which have varsity experience to go with it," said Spiwak. "I am excited to see the growth of all of our players. I think we had a great summer, and our team is strong and in shape going into camp. It's time for this group to make their own mark."
On the schedule, Clinton plays in the Rock Valley, which is a closed conference. That means they will play the same nine teams as last year, but with reversed home fields, and this year they will also play them in the same order.
"There is no lack of talent in the conference this year," said Spiwak, listing off several of the top players in the state that Clinton will see this season in the Rock Valley.
Clinton won't have to wait long to face last year's other Rock Valley co-champion. Evansville/Albany awaits Clinton right out of the gates for Week 1. Last year, the Blue Devils earned the season-opening victory, handing Clinton their only conference loss of the season.
The Cougars' home opener is against Brodhead/Juda, the second of five playoff qualifiers from last year that Clinton will have to face in a row to start the year. The Cougars are back on the road to face Big Foot in Week 3.
Clinton stays on the road in Week 4, playing East Troy on September 8. In Week 5, Clinton will play the last remaining 2016 playoff qualifier from the Rock Valley, as they will host conference contender Jefferson.
While Turner did not qualify for the playoffs a season ago, most coaches in the conference believe the Trojans are poised to become one of the best teams in the Rock Valley. Clinton will make the short drive west in an attempt to crash Turner's homecoming on September 22.
The Cougars will get McFarland at home, Edgerton on the road, and Whitewater at home to wrap up the regular season. None of those three teams won more than three games a year ago.
While Clinton figures to be in the mix atop the Rock Valley, Jefferson, Turner, Big Foot, Evansville/Albany, and East Troy figure to be the other strongest contenders in the conference. It won't be an easy season for the Cougars if they hope to duplicate--or improve upon--their historic run to the state semifinals in 2016.
"It is going to a fun season in our conference," said Coach Spiwak. "Every week poses a different challenge, and no team can be overlooked. I believe there will be a lot of parity in the conference... it is wide open.
"I expect the Clinton Cougars to be able to compete for a third straight conference championship."
--Jimmie Kaska @jimmekaska