With success last season came one huge, unforeseen dividend for the Oak Creek football team this season.
Because many of the Southeast Conference champions' games were essentially over by halftime, that allowed coach Mike Bartholomew and his staff to play many younger players in the second half.
That after-effect will help make up in some ways for the enormous graduation losses the 9-1 Knights' suffered this past June and should help keep Oak Creek in the league race right until the end.
"We started a lot of second halves with reserves playing," Bartholomew said. "Getting more kids like that to play under the lights is a very big deal."
That's because the Knights lost boatloads of stars, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They return only three defensive starters: senior defensive tackle Peter Mitchell (6-3, 225), senior strong safety Nick Baumann (5-11, 180) and junior cornerback Eli Strong (6-0, 160).
The Knights will have decent size up front defensive (averaging around 220 and being fleet of foot), but will have much work to do replacing the four first or second-team all-conference linebackers they had last year (including all-staters Alex Hahn and Kyle Koepsel).
Bartholomew has been pleased with the efforts of newcomer linebackers like junior Justin Dzibinski (5-11, 185) and senior Tory Purpora (6-2, 225).
"We'll also run five or six guys front like we've always done," Bartholomew said. Included in that group is junior Jordan Frentz (6-0, 240) and senior Mitch Olsen (6-3, 225). "We'll have some good speed on defense."
On offense, things are a little better, as Bartholomew will work with six returning starters. Along with senior quarterback Jordan Strong (6-2, 165) will be powerhouse running back Derrick Stephan (6-0, 200) and senior wide receiver Eddie Reader (5-9, 175).
Helping pave the way will be three returning starters on the offensive line, including potential junior all-world candidate Nathan Veloz (6-4, 310), senior Michael Nitecki (5-10, 235) and junior Matt Goebel (6-5, 285).
Bartholomew has been very happy with the work of Strong, who in early season camp work has kept his mental mistakes to a bare minimum.
"Part of that is that we've kept a very consistent coaching staff the last four years," Bartholomew said. "We're just showing really good concentration on this side of the ball. Last year, a key to our success was that we didn't beat ourselves with mental mistakes. Hopefully, we can do that again."
Oak Creek Knights
Player to watch: Senior quarterback Jordan Strong. Despite heavy graduation losses across the board, Strong, a part-time starter last year, will lead an offense that has a chance to do some things this year behind three returning offensive linemen and a good back in Derrick Stephan. "We'll ask him to make the plays he can and not turn it over," coach Mike Bartholomew said.
Date to circle: Sept. 13 at home against Racine Horlick. The Rebels are seen as among the favorites this season in the league and the defending Southeast champion Knights will need to take care of business at home before a huge date the next week at Franklin.
We say: There was much lost physically to graduation from the league champs of a year ago, but if Bartholomew and his staff can get the largely rebuilt defense to be respectable, the Knights should be in the state playoffs again if not even a dark horse in the SEC race.
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