For defending state champion Omaha North, playing in the final game of the season has become a regular occurrence. Larry Martin’s Vikings have played in five of the past six Class A state title games, winning three, including last season’s 27-20 win over Kearney.
Some familiar faces return, including all-Nebraska first team running back Zander Gray and offensive lineman Mehki Butler, but all-Nebraska first team running back Milton Sargbah and defensive back Vernon Johnson graduated.
To keep the state title game streak going, Martin knows that this year’s edition of the Vikings will have to follow a familiar formula.
“We feel like we have a good formula,” Martin said. “We know we have a good formula of what it takes to get most out of our kids and have them playing the best football that we can in the early part of October and November. There’s a high level of trust there, but there’s a high level of accountability.”
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Class A No. 1 Omaha North (12-1)
Coach: Larry Martin, 19th season (131-65)
Championships: A, 2017, 2014, 2013
Returning starters: OL Mekhi Butler (Sr.), RB Zander Gray (Sr.), OL Keegan Clark (Sr.), QB Houston Fogelstrom (Sr.), OL Ryan Sigler (Sr.), WR Bryant Wesson (Sr.), RB Ian Brown (Sr.), LB Malachi O’Neal (Sr.), DB Jalen Foster (Sr.)
Key departure: The Vikings graduated two first team all-Nebraska players in Sargbah and Johnson. Johnson had three interceptions and broke up eight passes in the secondary for Omaha North. Sargbah, who signed with Iowa Western, paced North's rushing attack with 2,355 yards and 28 touchdowns. He averaged more than 180 yards rushing per game and had 10 games with more than 100 yards on the ground.
“You don’t replace kids like him,” Martin said. “Milton was a threat to take the ball to the house any time he had it. He was very competitive, really tough. You don’t replace kids like that.”
Key returning player: After splitting carries with Sargbah last season, Gray will be the feature back for the Vikings. He was a first team all-Nebraska performer as a junior as he rushed for 1,707 yards and 25 touchdowns. He has a scholarship offer from South Dakota and also has been hearing from schools like Nebraska, Wyoming and Purdue.
“We don’t want to overrun Zander early in the year, but he will be the guy,” Martin said. “But we’re going to have some other guys to keep some carries off him so it doesn’t pile up on him over the course of the season so that when we get into the latter part of the schedule, postseason, he doesn’t have tired legs.”
Breakout player: Quarterback Houston Fogelstrom returns for his second season as the starting signal caller. At the helm of Omaha North’s predominantly run-based offense, he threw for 1,040 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
“Any time that you can have a quarterback returning as a starter, you’re hoping that the game should be slowed down for him and things like that,” Martin said. “We’re really excited about that.”
On offense: Bringing back two first team all-Nebraska players is a good place to start, and the Vikings have that in Gray and Butler. Omaha North, which operates mostly out of the I-formation, returns both fullbacks and also has some young running backs that Martin hopes will be able to step in and help carry the load that Sargbah had a year ago. Butler is one of three starting offensive linemen to return, and other linemen with experience are back as well. After Gray, the returning rusher with most yards is LaVaughn Luellen with 99 yards.
On defense: Linebacker Malachi O’Neal leads the returners on defense. He totaled 79 tackles as a junior, including 8.5 for loss and two sacks while also intercepting a pair of passes. Jalen Foster returns to the North secondary. He had two interceptions and also totaled 22 tackles.
Game to watch: The Vikings open the season by hosting Omaha Creighton Prep. The Junior Jays reached the Class A semifinals in 2017, where they lost 25-23 to Kearney.
“We’re going to find out real quick. We’re going to have to have some kids grow up in a hurry because we go Thursday night against Prep,” Martin said. “Creighton Prep is going to be very good. They’ve got a lot of kids coming back off of a semifinal team. They’re going to be tough. ”
Final word: “This group is completely different from last year’s team, and we can’t take anything for granted,” Martin said. “We know and expect to get everybody’s best shot, but we’ve got to prepare like that. That’s a challenge, but one that I’m confident our kids and our coaches have taken very seriously. We’re going to find out where we’re at right away at the beginning of the season.”
2018 schedule (with 2017 record)
x-Aug. 23, Omaha Creighton Prep (9-3)
Aug. 31, at Omaha Northwest (2-7)
x-Sept. 6, at Millard West (9-2)
x-Sept. 14, Omaha Burke (9-3)
Sept. 21, Lincoln Southeast (4-5)
x-Sept. 28, at Papillion-La Vista South (4-6)
Oct. 5, Lincoln Northeast (2-7)
x-Oct. 12, Bellevue West (9-2)
Oct. 18, at Bellevue East (1-8)
x-denotes playoff teams; district opponents in bold type