Preview Section: Find a copy of the 16-page high school football preview near you
* * *
Alec Ditoro has no doubt when he releases the ball.
He leans back, puts his whole body into the throw and slings it, sending a spiraling brown blur down the sideline to his left.
His target, senior receiver Bryce Sheard, tracks the ball, running step for step with a cornerback who often looks tiny — almost hopeless — in comparison.
As the pigskin approaches, time slows for Sheard. He positions himself as he was taught, putting his back against the corner to shield him from the play. He bends his knees, coiling like a slingshot. Then he leaps.
Class A defenses know the rest.
As a junior in 2011, Sheard racked up 898 receiving yards and scored 11 touchdowns, helping lead Papillion-La Vista to a 9-3 record. The third loss — a 28-18 defeat at the hands of Lincoln Southeast in the state semifinals — has nagged at Sheard ever since.
“I've thought about it every day in the weight room, just to get one more rep in, or when we're conditioning just to work a little bit harder or get a little bit better to get into that state championship game,” Sheard said.
Any strength that the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Sheard adds in the weight room will count as a bonus. The senior is a two-sport athlete, excelling in track and field when he isn't leaving corners in his wake.
He finished second in the state in the high jump in 2011, recording a jump of 6 feet, 9 inches. While his main focus has always been on football, his offseason hobby has only made him more dangerous as a receiver.
After all, catching the ball at its highest point shouldn't be an issue.
It helps that the teammate delivering the ball — the 5-10, 160-pound Ditoro — knows how to involve his playmakers in the offense. Whether it's a simple toss to senior running back Tyler Wrice (5-9, 175), a slant to junior slot receiver Jalen Allison (5-11, 160) or a deep ball to Sheard, the junior is in control of his surroundings.
“Personally for Alec, he was a football player that was just trying to do his job (last season),” Monarchs head coach Jeff Govier said. “Now it's become secondary and now he can become more of a leader.
“The thought process for him is now more in tune, where he's focusing on not just the Xs and Os and what his responsibilities are, but he can show the leadership skills that he possesses.”
Govier hopes that leadership, as well as the leaping ability of his top receiver, carries the Monarchs one game further than in 2011.
Sheard will try to lead the way.
“He's a kid who encourages some of our underclassmen,” Govier said. “It really doesn't matter how good they are. If he sees them improve, he's our best coach out there.
“I think he's drawn a lot of kids to our program because of that, and he keeps a lot of the kids around. He makes the environment fun. He makes some of those kids want to be a part of our program, just because of his personality and attitude.”
When the ball leaves Ditoro's hand, though, Sheard leads in a different way — by example.
He sees the ball, and he gets it.
“I've never seen a better receiver than Bryce Sheard,” Ditoro said. “He's got everything, it feels like.”
When he finally lands, Sheard has the football — everything that matters.
Contact the writer:
* * *
Class A games worth seeing
Millard West vs. Lincoln Southeast, Aug. 24, DNP
Lincoln North Star vs. Lincoln Southwest, Aug. 24, SW 48-21
The best Seacrest Field twin bill in a long time — all four teams are ranked.
Millard South vs. Millard North, Aug. 24 , MN 35-0 (later forfeited)
The Millard schools play their round-robin in the season's first four weeks.
Omaha Westside at Omaha Creighton Prep, Aug. 31, W 35-0
First four games for Prep are against rivals.
Millard South at Lincoln Southeast, Sept. 7, SE 28-7
Millard South could have led 14-0 at halftime in last year's state semifinal.
Lincoln Southeast at Lincoln Southwest, Sept. 20, SE 17-12
As last year's turnout of 8,500 will attest, this is the strongest rivalry in town.
Grand Island at Kearney, Sept. 21, GI 36-24
These should be the two best teams outside the two metro areas.
Omaha Central at Millard West, Sept. 27, DNP
Winner has the inside track to a district championship.
Omaha Burke vs. Omaha North, Sept. 28, B 49-35
Last year's game racked up 1,117 total yards and was tied 28-28 at the half.
Papillion-La Vista at Omaha Burke, Oct. 12, B 42-35
Rematch of one of 2011's top shootouts that Burke won on its final drive.
* * *
Returning Class A all-state players
Isaac Aakre, Millard North, QB, 5-11, 188, Sr.
Is 18-5 as a starter, with a state championship in 2010.
Devin Washington, Lincoln Southeast, RB, 5-8, 170, Sr.
Will the Knights have to work him as hard as last year?
Nick DeLuca, Millard North, LB, 6-3, 240, Sr.
He's in the middle of what should be an improved Mustangs defense.
Mike Minter Jr., Lincoln North Star, RB-LB, 6-1, 170, Sr.
If off-field issues are resolved, he'll be a force for the Gators.
Others to watch this year:
Casey Sayles, Omaha North, TE-DE, 6-4, 270, Sr.
Made big strides in the offseason to start generating FBS offers.
Najee Jackson, Lincoln Southeast, QB, 6-1, 174, Sr.
Threw for 1,501 yards and 17 TDs for state champions in debut season.
Alec Ditoro, Papillion-La Vista, QB, 6-0, 175, Jr.
In his first year as a starter, he led Class A with 2,634 passing yards.
DJ Foster, Lincoln Southeast, OG-DT, 6-3, 290, Jr.
Considered one of the state's top prospects in the junior class.
Tyler Wrice, Papillion-La Vista, RB-CB, 5-8, 175, Sr.
Is a lockdown cornerback who also is an offensive threat.
Jack Davis, Omaha Central, 5-8, 175, RB, Sr.
He may have to carry the Eagles' offense to begin the year.
Josh Banderas, Lincoln Southwest, RB-OSLB, 6-2, 225, Sr.
Husker recruit, a hurdles champion, moves into the backfield.
Zach Cook, Omaha Burke, QB, 6-2, 200, Sr.
A true pocket quarterback, he threw for 29 TDs in a 12-1 season.
* * *
• District 1: Bellevue East, Millard West, Omaha Bryan, Omaha Central, Omaha Creighton Prep, Omaha Northwest
• District 2: Bellevue West, Millard North, Omaha Burke, Omaha North, Papillion-La Vista
• District 3: Millard South, Omaha Benson, Omaha South, Omaha Westside, Papillion-La Vista South
• District 4: Fremont, Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln High, Lincoln North Star, North Platte
• District 5: Lincoln East, Lincoln Northeast, Lincoln Pius X, Lincoln Southeast, Lincoln Southwest, Norfolk
* * *
Key stat: 36
Touchdowns as a sophomore and junior by Omaha Central running back Jack Davis. The Metro career record is 56.
* * *
“The schedule forces us to grow up fast.” — Millard West coach Kirk Peterson, whose team's first four games are against Lincoln Southeast, Millard North, Omaha Burke and Millard South.