An undefeated season was capped off by a big fourth-quarter rally in the state championship game, as Waunakee won the D2 crown a season ago. With seven returning all-conference players, the Warriors are looking to make another title run in 2018.
Six players on the team are on the WisSports.net player rankings lists this season as well, showcasing the incredible depth of talent at the school. However, with graduation, comes the work of replacing 20 players who earned some form of all-conference recognition, including 15 first-team honorees.
"It's not the first time we've gone through this," said Rice. "That's high school football. The next group has been working hard, and waiting their turn. They're excited for the opportunity."
That opportunity includes defending a state championship. "When those guys walk by the case and see six gold balls, I think it shows them what they can accomplish," said Rice.
While a good deal of starters exit, Waunakee should still be a force this year, particularly along the lines. Coach Pat Rice said it starts up front with the return of starters Gabe Zander and Nathan Miller, two of only three returning starters on offense along with wide receiver Sawyer Maly. Defensively, Reed Ryan will be the most recognizable name in the group, and will be the only returning regular, but other contributors who saw starter-level minutes include safety Nic Robson and linebacker Blake McCurdy.
"Some unproven players will step up," said Rice. "You might not know everybody's names, but you will by the time the season's over."
One area of particular interest is the backfield. With the entire starting backfield gone, as well as tight end and split end, the Warriors will have work to do in ordering the depth chart this training camp.
"The nice thing about our offense is we can go a lot of different ways and play to our strengths," said Rice. "I think across the board, there's a lot of positions that are open. We've got a lot of competition at a number of positions."
While it's popular to speculate who will be in the backfield, the fact is only 50 rushing yards from a season ago (and no passing yards) are returning. Sawyer Maly returns as the team's second-leading receiver a year ago.
The Warriors open the season at Fort Atkinson, before returning home to host Watertown in the Badger crossover games. The Badger North opener is against Mount Horeb/Barneveld on August 31, the second time in three weeks Waunakee will see a new head coach at a program.
Week 4 against DeForest will be a test of top Badger North squads and is The Big 1070's Madison Taxi Game of the Week broadcast. Two road games follow, at Portage and Sauk Prairie, before a return trip back to Waunakee for Homecoming against rival Reedsburg on September 28.
The final month of the regular season features a home game with Barabook in Week 8 and the regular-season finale against Beaver Dam on October 12.
Here is The Big 1070's interview with Waunakee Warriors head coach Pat Rice:
Waunakee Warriors - Badger North
Head Coach: Pat Rice (27th Season), 274-39 Overall (State Champion 1999, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2017), WFCA Hall of Fame 2014
2017 Result: 14-0 (7-0), 🏆1st in the Badger North (🏆Won Division 2 State Championship 14-13 over Brookfield Central)
Three-Year Record: 35-2 (8-2 Playoffs)
2017 All-Conference Honors: 18 First-Team, 6 Second-Team, 4 Honorable Mention (28 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 41 First-Team, 25 Second-Team, 14 Honorable Mention (80 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (7): DL/OL Reed Ryan [🏈 WSN] (1st Team-DL) (HM-DL in 2016), Sr.; K Nate Stevens [🏈 WSN] (1st Team-K), Sr.; C/LS/DL Gabe Zander [🏈 WSN] (1st Team-OL), Sr.; WR/DB Sawyer Maly [🏈 WSN] (1nd Team-WR), Sr.; T/DL Nathan Miller [🏈 WSN] (2nd Team-OL), Sr.; S/WR Nick Robson (HM-DB), Sr.; LB/OL Blake McCurdy (HM-LB), Sr.
Other Players To Watch: TE/LB Austin Keller [🏈 WSN] , Sr.; P/RB/DB Trey Fancher [🏈 WSN], Sr.; G/DL Zach Dederich, Sr.; LB/RB Gavin Tachick, Sr.; LB/WR Jordan Ranum, Sr.; K/WR/LB Reese Marek, Sr.; DE/TE Zach Marek, Sr.; DT/OL Kellan Campbell, Sr.; S/WR Nic Robson, Sr.; S/WR Grant Blakeslee, Sr.; RB/DB/ST Jarret Wulf, Sr.; K Michael Saxby, Sr.; RB/DB Evan Zwettler, Sr.; WR/LB Josh Block, Sr.; RB/DB Will Ross, Jr.; WR/DB Caden Lewis, Jr.
BIG Games: vs Mount Horeb/Barneveld, August 31; vs DeForest, September 7 (🔊Madison Taxi Game of the Week); vs Reedsburg, September 28 (Homecoming)