After three straight conference titles, the Evansville/Albany football program missed out on a championship in 2017, but still made the playoffs. The Blue Devils will have another group of talented seniors to replace as they try to get back to the top of the Rock Valley Conference.
One of the biggest spots on the roster to fill will be at quarterback, where four-year letterwinner Zach Mielke graduated after an outstanding career with the Blue Devils. Mielke, who is also head coach Ron Grovesteen's grandson, threw for 20 touchdowns and had 1,546 passing yards last season.
Another Mielke could be in the mix at quarterback. "His brother, Gavin, is one of the quarterbacks we're looking at," said Mielke. "Try Severson is another one we're looking at. And, Josh Pappakis."
"He'll be hard to replace," Grovesteen added. "Those are some big shoes to fill."
Lining up behind the new quarterback will be a new set of running backs as well. The top six rushers on last year's team have all graduated. Gabe Dienberg and Charlie Heinnzelman are the leading returning ground gainers, but only had 18 carries and a touchdown in 2017. Receiver will be filled with new faces as well, but the position will build around second-team all-conference tight end/wideout Sullivan Geske, who is only a junior this upcoming season. No other returning player caught a pass last year, but "Sully" went for 601 yards on 23 catches and had nine touchdowns.
Up front is where it starts for the Blue Devils, said Grovesteen. "Evan Blumer will probably be playing both ways. Braden Bergum is our starting left tackle, and we'll have Jacob Shotliff on offense and defense."
In addition to Blumer, one of the top-ranked senior defensive linemen in the state according to WisSports.net and a first-team all-conference selection last year, and Shotliff, the Blue Devils will also have second-team all-conference pick Branden Lange at defensive tackle to provide a solid base up front for Evansville/Albany to build around. At linebacker will be second-team all-conference honoree Malcolm Johnson. The back end and edges of the defense, however, will feature some younger players stepping into much larger roles, with returning holdovers such as Carson Hill (44 tackles and an interception in 2017) helping man the secondary.
On special teams, Sam Urquhart graduates, leaving opportunities at punter and kicker (Carson Hill is the only player on the roster listed at kicker). The return game will have options as well.
Evansville/Albany's journey begins with a trip over and down on Highway 104 to Brodhead/Juda, by far the shortest road trip of the season for the Blue Devils. In Week 2, E/A brings in the improving Edgerton Crimson Tide. August 31 sends the Blue Devils over to Jefferson, before following up with yet another tough game against Beloit Turner, a burgeoning rivalry after the Trojans topped Evansville/Albany in overtime last year.
In Week 5, Evansville/Albany will travel to East Troy, before Homecoming on September 21 against Whitewater. Back on the road, the Blue Devils face Big Foot in Week 7 before their final home game of the regular season, Senior Night against McFarland on October 5. The regular-season finale is a trip to Clinton to take on the defending conference champions.
Here is The Big 1070's interview with Evansville/Albany head coach Ron Grovesteen:
Evansville/Albany Blue Devils - Rock Valley
Head Coach: Ron Grovesteen (36th Season) 274-110 Overall (20-23 Playoffs) - WFCA Hall of Fame, 2001
2017 Result: 6-4 (6-3), 4th in the Rock Valley (Lost in Level 1 of the Division 3 playoffs to Mount Horeb/Barneveld, 56-7)
Three-Year Record: 24-7 (1-3 Playoffs)
2017 All-Conference Honors: 5 First-Team, 7 Second-Team, 3 Honorable Mention (15 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 25 First-Team, 18 Second-Team, 9 Honorable Mention (52 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (4): DE Evan Blumer [🏈 WSN] (1st Team-DL), Sr.; LB Malcolm Johnson (1st Team-LB), Sr.; DT Branden Lange (2nd Team-DL), Sr.; WR/TE Sullivan Geske (2nd Team-WR), Jr.
Other Players To Watch: RB/LB Gabe Dienberg, Sr.; LB/FB Charlie Heinnzelman, Sr.; RB/CB Matt Forster, Sr.; T/DT Jacob Shotliff, Sr.; T/DT Braden Bergum, Sr.; OL/DL Mitchell Parr, Sr.; QB/WR/DB Gavin Mielke, Jr.; QB Brayden Jensen, Jr.; WR/QB Travon Randolph, Jr.; RB Noah Hionis, Jr.; TE Seth Maag, Jr.; DB/K Carson Hill, Jr.; DB/WR Jaden Obel, Jr.; LB/WR Sam Hrdlicka, Jr.; CB/WR Ryan Borchardt, Jr.; DB/WR Davonte McAlister, Jr.; OL Clint Bergsma, Jr.; WR Try Severson, So.; QB Josh Pappakis, So.; TE/LB Patrick Crull, So.; OL/DL Owen Sperry, So.
BIG Games: vs Beloit Turner, September 7; at East Troy, September 14; vs McFarland, October 5 (Senior Night)
Disclaimer: Author is a resident of Evansville, but he and his family have no affiliation with the school district or athletic programs