All-area football: Cougars, Badgers lead the gridiron pack
For the second consecutive season, Clinton High led the state of Wisconsin in rushing yards per game. The Cougars ran for more than 372 yards per game in going 11-1—including a perfect 9-0 in the Rock Valley Conference—and advancing to the WIAA Division 5 state quarterfinals.
Lake Geneva Badger was also one of the state's most prolific rushing teams. The Badgers ranked 25th at just under 295 yards per game on the ground in putting together a perfect 7-0 mark in the Southern Lakes Conference and advancing to the second round of the Division 1 playoffs.
It's no surprise, then, that the two programs dominate our all-area football selections for 2017.
Gazette sports editor Eric Schmoldt and writer John Barry worked with fellow staff, freelance writers and area coaches to trim the list down to 25 all-area selections. Ten of the 14 area high schools are represented by at least one player, with five earning multiple selections.
Walworth Big Foot senior Jackson Enz, a North Dakota State recruit, played in just six games before suffering a serious knee injury, but he made a big enough impact to earn all-region and all-state honors at the utility position.
A two-time state track and field champion in hurdles, Enz completed 87 of 150 passes for 1,120 yards, throwing 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He rushed for 609 yards on 90 carries, finding the end zone 11 times.
As a defensive back, he also piled up 60 tackles (46 solo) with two forced fumbles and an interception.
“He was probably leaned on even more heavily. The only team he wasn't on was kickoff,” said Greg Enz, Jackson's father and Big Foot's head coach. “What I started reflecting on was just how complete of a football player he was. He was explosive and strong and all of that, but was even probably limited a little bit just by how much he needed to be on the field.”
Joining Enz and giving our team another option as both a quarterback and defensive back is Clinton senior Tyler Halsted.
As the mastermind of the Cougars' option-oriented offense, Halsted rushed 121 times for 842 yards and 15 touchdowns and completed 34 of 63 passes for 613 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
As a safety defensively, Halsted intercepted a pair passes.
“He didn't have the gaudy numbers of some of the other quarterbacks in the league, but he also had a great supporting cast and didn't have to have those numbers,” Clinton coach Jeff Spiwak said. “He was absolutely essential for us in his decision-making, as far as the run reads in our offense. He's going to be sorely missed.”
Clinton senior Zach Krause led the state in rushing yards during the regular season and is The Gazette's area player of the year.
“He does all the right things,” Spiwak said of Krause, who was all-state as a running back and also all-region as a defensive back. “He's just a phenomenal teammate, and that's the greatest praise I could give a player of mine.”
Lake Geneva Badger senior Will Keller was an honorable mention all-state pick at running back after being named the offensive player of the year in the Southern Lakes Conference.
Keller rushed 146 times for 1,146 yards and 16 touchdowns and also caught three passes for 60 yards and a score.
He also had a kick return for a touchdown, and—as a defensive player in certain situations—picked off a pass and returned it for a score.
“We saw quite a bit of improvement, which was welcome, especially since he had a very good junior year,” Badger coach Matt Hensler said. “We knew from the first couple days of practice that he was absolutely dialed in, and a guy that was on a mission.”
Our all-area running backs both bring a pair of their lineman teammates along with them.
For Badger, Sarek Hoerth transitioned from tackle to guard, and the 6-foot-5, 320-pound senior thrived. Hoerth was named honorable mention all-state after earning all-region and all-conference honors.
“He was just a little bit different this year, a little more intense and finished blocks a little better,” Hensler said. “He created space in the middle, which was a big deal for us.”
And Badger's senior center Sam Kaider helped keep the Badgers' offense humming. He was also a first-team all-SLC honoree.
“It was unbelievable how much we threw at him,” Hensler said. “He had all the O-line calls and got everyone in the right spot. He's one of the best we've ever had, just being able to see and understand and know everybody else's responsibilities.”
Beloit Turner senior Brandon Malkow emerged on the scene as a Division I college prospect a year ago and took his game to new heights.
Malkow, who will play on scholarship at Western Illinois, was an honorable mention all-state lineman and the Rock Valley's lineman of the year.
“His consistency is where he stepped up. His pancake highlight tape is now over an hour long,” Turner coach Derek Diehl said. “He cleaned up his game, got stronger and was able to do some things this year that he couldn't last year. He did everything he needed to do and was rewarded with a DI full ride.”
Clinton senior Eric Paschke was a two-way all-RVC first-team selection and an all-region choice as an offensive lineman.
“He's just so experienced and such an intelligent football player,” Spiwak said. “He's mastered it, mentally, high school football. His technique, footwork, all those things are what set him apart.”
Fellow senior Clayton Hahn was the center for the Cougars and earned first-team all-league honors.
“He's extremely strong and one of those kids we've really seen grow over four years,” Spiwak said. “He really turned into an intense competitor this year, as well. So a great guy to have in the middle.”
Big Foot senior Pedro Sierra was Enz's No. 1 target.
Sierra caught 42 passes for 639 yards and eight touchdowns in earning all-region honors. A two-way player, he also posted 40 tackles (35 solo) with two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
“Incredible work ethic,” Greg Enz said. “Some of the best ball-tracking skills I think I've ever seen in a football player. He made acrobatic catches that you see on YouTube from the college game. A rare combination of athletic ability and intense focus to improve.”
Milton senior Chance Nelson was named first-team all-Badger South and a team MVP after punishing opposing defenses throughout the year.
Nelson finished with 55 catches for 670 yards and seven touchdowns, and he ran for another touchdown.
He had 21 of his catches for 310 yards and five touchdowns during Milton's three-game winning streak to open the season.
Edgerton junior Mason Simmons piled up touchdowns for the Crimson Tide. He caught 37 passes for 658 yards and 10 touchdowns on his way to earning all-conference honors.
Simmons also played on defense, finishing with 50 tackles (27 solo).
“The biggest thing for him was yards after catch. You look at the East Troy game, he had a 92-yard touchdown pass, and the ball was caught five yards downfield ... and he breaks three tackles along the way,” Tide coach Mike Gregory said. “A great pattern runner though, too, so he could also get open deep.”
Janesville Craig senior Luke Malmanger is the all-area choice at tight end for the second year in a row.
Though defenses often double- and sometimes even triple-teamed him, he finished with 32 catches for 405 yards and three touchdowns to earn honorable mention all-state honors.
“He started on varsity as a sophomore and just improved every year,” Craig coach Adam Bunderson said. “He improved a lot as a blocker this year. And we ran our entire pass game through him. Teams knew that he was our first, second and third look.”
Janesville Craig junior Keeanu Benton had already made a name for himself as a wrestler as an underclassman but broke out as a football player this fall.
Benton finished with 52 tackles (24 solo), including six for loss and two sacks, and he recovered a pair of fumbles. He was named second-team all-Big Eight.
“He allowed us to be as good of a defense as we were, especially against the run,” Bunderson said. “He'd eat up two or three blockers and allow our linebackers to make plays. He's got a good motor and improved a lot from the first game to the end of the year.”
Clinton senior Kenny Ballmer was another two-way all-conference choice for the Cougars.
Ballmer finished with 60 tackles (19 solo), including 17 for loss and three sacks. He forced a fumble and intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in the Cougars' second-round playoff victory.
“He missed a year of football because he broke his foot ... but he grew so much this year physically and mentally and as a football player,” Spiwak said of his 6-4, 230-pound lineman. “He's more athletic than you think, for his size. You saw a lot of that when he was on the defensive line.”
Badger senior Alex Evans will be the smallest lineman on the all-area team, but that didn't stop him from having an exception season.
Evans, at 6-foot and 180 pounds, had 58 tackles (14 solo) with 10 sacks. He forced a fumble and had a fumble recovery to be named all-region.
“He's one of the best players I've ever been around, but he's just not big ... so that all-state stuff, he just doesn't get any recognition,” Hensler said. “He was, by 40-some pounds, the lightest guy on the all-region team. The fact of the matter is, he can play. He's the fastest kid in the school, so that helps obviously, but he's strong as an ox.”
Senior Steve Espinoza was another Clinton player who had to wait for his turn to shine but made the most of it.
Espinoza was first-team all-conference after posting 100 tackles (40 solo) with 20 for loss. He had 4.5 sacks, forced four fumbles and recovered two of them.
“He got a bunch of reps on defense last year but really committed himself to the weight room and playing the sport of football this year,” Spiwak said. “His numbers were outstanding. He just never stopped growing, never stopped getting better.”
Clinton senior Connor Mullooly was the heart and soul of a defensive unit that sometimes was overshadowed by an offense that put up prolific numbers.
Mullooly earned honorable-mention all-state status by putting up a team-best 127 tackles (57 solo), with 14 for loss. He forced three fumbles, recovered five of them and intercepted two passes. Mullooly had two defensive touchdowns.
He also rushed for 354 yards and quarterbacked a Wildcat offense in a 7-6 win at Turner after Halsted went out with an injury.
“He's the quiet leader of our team,” Spiwak said. “An extremely instinctual football player who did all the right things in the offseason and in-season. He really was the leader of our program.”
Janesville Parker senior Kyle Fuller moved from an outside linebacker position to an inside spot in the Vikings defense and thrived despite some injuries.
Fuller, a second-team all-Big Eight pick, had 55 tackles, including 12 solo, and forced and recovered one fumble.
“He's probably our surest tackler and a really smart defensive player. He can really key and go as quick as possible, so it's real easy to coach him,” Vikings head coach Clayton Kreger said. “He watched a lot of film to understand when pass routes were coming and turned out to be very good in pass coverage.
“We could have used him at fullback or tight end, but he was just so valuable on the defensive side of the ball.”
Janesville Craig senior Seth Glissendorf was also a second-team all-Big Eight linebacker.
Glissendorf led the Cougars with 69 tackles, including 30 solo and four for loss. He forced one fumble, had a fumble recovery and returned an interception for a touchdown.
“He's a really good tackler and physical player,” Bunderson said. “We didn't blitz a ton, but when we did, we liked to send him.”
Evansville/Albany senior Nolan Kicmol was a first-team all-Rock Valley player, adding to his accolades as a wrestler.
Kicmol finished with 91 tackles, including 23 solo and six for loss, and returned a fumble for a touchdown for the Blue Devils.
“Kicmol is a kid we played at outside linebacker but was capable of playing multiple positions,” Evansville/Albany coach Ron Grovesteen said. “A sure tackler, who because of his versatility and athleticism could stick with anybody (in pass coverage).”
Opponents may not have known a lot about Turner's Sereno Ferone, but Diehl expected the impressive senior season that he got out of this receiver/defensive back.
Ferone was a two-way all-RVC player that had 58 tackles (45 solo) and four interceptions on defense. And offensively he posted 29 catches for 673 yards and six scores.
“Last year was his first year coming back out since junior high, but he's just super athletic, so we knew what we had in him,” Diehl said. “A lot of people think he's a small kid with a lot of speed and quickness, but he's got the heart of a lion. There's no quit.”
Opponents needed to know where Brodhead/Juda senior Brekan Day was at all times.
As a safety, Day finished with 34 tackles and four interceptions. On offense, Day rushed for 367 yards and three touchdowns and also had 332 receiving yards and two scores.
“He was kind of Mr. Everything for us, and probably one of the better defensive backs we've had,” Cardinals coach Jim Matthys said. “In the win against McFarland, he pretty much won the game for us. He was a really steady upperclassmen.”
Badger's Nick Aufmuth might win the toughness award out of this whole bunch.
Despite playing through some hand injuries, he finished with 49 tackles (20 solo). Aufmuth had six interceptions, tying him for eighth in the state, and returned one of them for a touchdown.
“He always covered the opponents' best kid,” Hensler said. “In the Burlington game, he broke his fingers ... and he had surgery on a Tuesday and played on Friday with a club and had an interception with one hand. In the fourth quarter of that game, he dislocated two fingers on his other hand and missed one play. Two broken fingers, two dislocated fingers, he missed one play all season.”
It might not be completely fair to put Turner's Juan Reyes in this spot, given the many different ways he can hurt opponents.
Reyes was a three-way first-team all-conference honoree, adding inside linebacker to his two special teams duties.
He put 10 of his 27 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line and had a 40.8-yard average. Reyes was also 30 of 33 on extra points. And defensively he had 92 tackles (66 solo) and forced a fumble, recovered another and intercepted two passes. If that's not enough, he rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown and caught 31 passes for 477 yards and five scores.
“Juan is a class act—very humble and a team player. He'd love to get more touches but would never be the kid to say so,” Diehl said. “He came off a surgery season and six months of not doing anything. But he never missed a down, never missed a game. He made so many clutch plays.”