Following a loss in the state semifinals to champion East Butler, Howells-Dodge is looking for another run at postseason play.
However, coach Mike Speirs’ Jaguars have a fair amount of obstacles to overcome before they reach it. This season, they return three starters and have five offensive and six defensive starting positions to fill.
“Every time you lose a starter, it’s always a challenge to fill that spot,” Speirs said. “You’ve got to break in a lot of new starters. No one position is more difficult than any other.”
While quarterback has yet to be filled, the Jaguars did retain some key starters.
Dylan Horejsi returns for his third season at running back. He led the Jaguars last season with 1,622 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. Having the last season’s leading rusher greatly advantages the Jaguars, who primarily run a rushing offense.
The Jaguars also kept cousins Lane Hegemann and Kade Hegemann, who are expected to be leaders on both sides of the ball. Both are multi-year starters with Lane starting three years and Kade four.
Kade finished last season as the leader in receptions with 12 for 131 yards and two touchdowns. He also led the Jaguars in tackles, and Lane tied him for most tackles for loss with 12.
Speirs’ hope is that these three will step up and help guide the new starters.
“It’s always your goal to make it to the postseason,” Speirs said. “How competitive we can be depends on how quickly we can get settled with our starters and how well they handle being first year starters.”
Eight Man-1 No. 2 Howells-Dodge (11-1)
Coach: Mike Speirs, 23rd season
Returning starters: TE/LB Kade Hegemann (Sr.); G/DE Lane Hegemann (Sr.); RB Dylan Horejsi (Sr.)
Key departure: The Jaguars lost six starters, but the loss of quarterback and defensive end Dax VanLengen will be felt the most.
During his senior year, VanLengen threw for 871 yards with 15 touchdowns. He also added 11 rushing touchdowns. VanLengen also finished his final season with 33 total tackles, with 13 solo.
Key returning player: With a new quarterback, the Jaguars will rely on three-year starter and last year’s rushing leader, Dylan Horejsi.
Playing only offense, Horejsi covered 1,622 yards on 261 carries and scored 25 touchdowns last year, but this season, he may play on both sides of the ball.
“Last year we had him only playing offense,” Speirs said. “We’re trying to do that with him again, but it just might not work out. He might have to play a lot of defense.”
While he may lack experience on defense, Horejsi’s tenure at running back will definitely help the Jaguars’ rushing offense.
Breakout player: Should Luke Rocheford recover from a hamstring injury, he will be a key offensive player for the Jaguars.
“He’s an outstanding receiver,” Speirs said. “We’ve just got to find a way to get him the ball a little bit more this year.”
While not a starter last year, Rocheford had seven receptions for 123 yards and three touchdowns. This season, he could be a starting wide receiver, if he shakes the injury he sustained in track.
“He’s not at full speed yet,” Speirs said. “It was a pretty severe injury. If he comes back, he’s going to end up being a pretty big weapon for us. He’s got a ton of speed. He’s a very quick, very elusive kid.”
Others to watch: Darrin Pokorny (Jr.); Josh Brester (Sr.)
“Right now, we have two kids who could play quarterback, either Darrin Pokorny or Josh Brester,” Speirs said. “One of those two will play it for us.”
On offense: Under Speirs, the Jaguars have consistently made most of their offensive gains by running the ball.
“We’re a run-first team, always have been and always will be as long as I’m the coach,” Speirs said.
Last year, they covered 2,788 yards rushing as opposed to 911 passing yards and finished with 54 rushing touchdowns, compared to 16 passing.
Lane Hegemann is a three-year starter on the offensive and defensive lines and will be at guard this fall.
“After three years he’s pretty solid at what he’s doing and he’s pretty knowledgeable,” Speirs said. “Lane’s a pretty good football player that we’re going to lean on pretty heavily to help a lot of new starters in the offensive line.”
On defense: The Jaguars are not looking to change their defensive tactics from past years.
“We’ve run a 3-3-2 defense for a long time,” Speirs said. “It’s kind of what fits our kids. It’s what fits our coaching staff. It’s what we know best, so that’s probably what we’ll do again.”
By running a defense similar to past years, Speirs hopes that experienced players can transition into leadership roles.
The Jaguars will probably look to Kade Hegemann to lead the defense.
Hegemann returns as a four-year starter for the Jaguars and finished last season as the leader in total tackles and solo tackles with 164 and 50.
“He will be one of the top linebackers to go through our program,” Speirs said.
Lane Hegemann will also play an important role on the defensive line and last year, leading the Jaguars with five sacks.
Games to watch: Speirs expects to play three of Eight Man-1’s top teams in the first five games of the season: West Point GACC, Neligh-Oakdale and Norfolk Lutheran.
“They should be three really good teams, possibly three top teams in D-1, so that’s going to be a challenge,” Speirs said.
2018 schedule (with 2017 record)
X—denotes playoff teams; district opponents in bold type
x-Aug. 24, Clarkson/Leigh (3-6)
x-Aug. 31, West Point GACC (8-1)
Sept. 7, Wakefield (7-1)
Sept. 21, Norfolk Lutheran (5-4)
Sept. 28, Neligh-Oakdale (4-5)
Oct. 5, Elkhorn Valley (0-8)
Oct. 12, Laurel-Concord-Coleridge (1-7)
Oct. 19, Madison (0-9)