Crystal City dropped out of the I-55 in 2019 and perennial conference champion Valle Catholic exited in 2020. Perryville is set to join Bayless, Herculaneum, Grandview, Jefferson, St. Pius X and St. Vincent in 2022. Playing for conference coach of the year Dan Oliver, the Lancers swept the field at 5-0 to win the title this season.
Three teams posted winning records (St. Pius 8-3, Jefferson 7-3 and Grandview 7-4) and under first-year head coach Blane Boss, Herculaneum went from one win last year to five this fall.
After Jefferson marched to the Class 2 semifinals in a 2020 season pockmarked by COVID-19, none of the teams in the conference won a district title this season. The Blue Jays lost 22-21 to Kelly in the Class 2 District 1 playoffs in head coach Alex Rouggly’s final game. Rouggly became Jefferson’s head coach in 2015 and led the Blue Jays to a record of 50-25 (.667) and their first final four appearance. He had only one losing season (2019) and was 28-10 against conference opponents.
Jefferson will conduct a search to replace Rouggly soon and there are qualified members on his own staff, but the job has appeal for candidates in Jefferson County and beyond. The new head coach will enter a program that boasts strong support from the administration and community and deep roots implanted by Rouggly, who can focus on his new job as the school’s activities director.
“The goal is to hire the new coach sooner than later,” Rouggly said.
Every team in the conference except Bayless, 0-10 overall and 0-5 in the league, had at least one player selected to the I-55 all-conference first team. With no Valle dominating the coaches’ picks – coaches can’t vote for their own players – St. Pius and Jefferson were well represented and Grandview had its best showing in years thanks to a crop of seniors who forged a winning legacy.
Hutchinson Community College in south central Kansas is almost 500 miles from Grandview High. When the Blue Dragons had Saturday home games this season, Grandview head coach Dave Dallas would drive straight from guiding the Eagles on Friday night to Hutchinson to watch his son, Drew, the second-year Blue Dragon head coach. Father and son each won seven games this season.
Dave Dallas led the resurgence of a Grandview program that went from near-extinction to winning a district game for the first time in many years. The Eagles lost 48-0 to Duchesne in the Class 2 District 2 semifinals, but two of their three other losses were 28-27 to Father Tolton in Columbia and 22-12 to conference champion St. Pius.
“Our sophomore class is real strong and we have several seniors coming back next year,” Dallas said. “I’m pleased with the growth of the program.”
Here’s a look at the local players selected to the I-55 Conference first team.
Seniors Brandon Volner and Hayden Hughes anchored Grandview’s potent running attack on the offensive line. Volner, a three-year starter, played center this year after previously lining up at tackle. Hughes transferred to Grandview this year from the Springfield area and nailed down left tackle. The Eagles rushed for 2,680 yards and 37 touchdowns this season.
“That was due to their ability,” Dallas said of his O-line. “We were very balanced distributing the ball. It starts with (quarterback Clayton Riddle). Chase (Wilson) wasn’t able to play running back most of the year. If we had him, it would have given us another feature to the offense.
“We truly read (option) everything on offense. Cameron (Hagen) and Ryan (Ruble) played fullback a lot and got most of their yards there. That’s where the read-option starts.”
Ruble was named first-team fullback after leading the Eagles with 133 carries and 675 yards. He had two receiving touchdowns to go with nine on the ground.
“He worked tremendously hard,” Dallas said. “He had a tremendous attitude and he had a great season offensively and defensively. He was a go-to guy when we needed yards. He reads the hole well and he and Clayton had great chemistry together.”
Riddle didn’t get all-conference consideration at quarterback despite scoring 13 touchdowns and expertly running the option offense by feeding the ball to Ruble, Wilson, Hagen and Eric O’Brien. Riddle completed 41 percent of his passes and threw more touchdown passes (seven) than interceptions (four).
Riddle did make first-team at defensive end with three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Dallas said the Eagles’ 20 pickoffs were tops in the state.
Riddle is perhaps the only five-sport athlete in Jefferson County, competing in cross country, football, basketball, baseball and track and field.
“He was one of the best athletes in our conference this year,” Dallas said. “You don’t see too many quarterbacks play defensive end. He gave us another dimension defensively when we moved him there from linebacker.
“In the St. Vincent game (a 47-25 victory), he came off the edge and gave their quarterback fits all day and forced bad throws. He’s a great leader and was a mainstay for our team. He was the glue for the whole team.”
The Eagles were represented on the first team at all three levels on defense with Riddle, seniors Austin Welch (line) and Wilson (defensive back) and junior Austin Blankenship (linebacker). Wilson led the team with four interceptions. Blankenship had a team-high 133 tackles and Welch, who had started on the O-line for three years, recovered two fumbles.
“After the first game he stepped up and played so hard,” Dallas said of Welch. “He didn’t get a lot of tackles but he was filling holes and taking on double-teams and letting our linebackers scrape. From last year to this year he was the most improved player we had on the team.”
Dallas called Blankenship, a transfer from St. Clair, a “stallion” who will be key to maintaining the team’s winning ways. The coach said he could be the conference defensive player of the year in 2022.
“I call him Taz (short for the frenzied “Tasmanian Devil” cartoon character) because he plays that way,” Dallas said. “He’s tough as a boot and he’s a great football player. He’s going to be a tremendous asset to the basketball team as well.”
Wilson, a senior, has been a fixture on the varsity since his freshman year. He was Grandview’s only representative on the first team in 2020. Dallas said opposing quarterbacks routinely look to the other side of the field, avoiding Wilson.
Midway through the season, the Blackcats were 1-5 and missing their entire starting backfield due to injuries.
Junior Jackson Dearing took over at quarterback and sparked Herculaneum to its biggest offensive output of the season in a 60-30 win over Bayless. That started a four-game winning streak that included a 30-12 win over Roosevelt in the Class 3 District 2 playoffs.
“I had faith (in the team) all along,” Blackcat mentor Boss said. “For these seniors, they’ve been through a lot in their career and I was happy they got a taste of what winning feels like.
“For us to win a district game for the first time in years, it was exciting for the kids and the community. There’s no excuse for us not to be able to compete with every team we play next year.”
Senior wide receiver Tanner Wiese averaged 20 yards per catch and caught five touchdown passes. Many of Wiese’s 17 catches moved the chains for the Blackcats, including on a crucial drive against Roosevelt.
“He came a long way. He didn’t have any TD catches last year,” Boss said. “He was by far our big-play threat. At 6-3, he can jump and go get the ball, and he’s sneaky fast.
“It’s always nice when you call the offense and can throw to a kid like Tanner. The catch against Roosevelt kept a drive alive, we scored and it sealed the game for us.”
Being named the all-conference first team “athlete” is fitting for Blackcat senior D.J. Johnson, who led Herky with 10 TDs, six two-point conversions, 690 rushing yards and 239 receiving yards. He also threw for one touchdown and averaged 15 yards on 15 kickoff returns.
“The position is perfect for D.J. because he did everything for us,” Boss said. “Down the stretch during our winning streak, D.J. stepped up in the run game. He’d get four or five carries a game, until the last five games when we really rode him. It came out of necessity. When (junior) Lucas (Bahr) went down, he was the next guy up. He got the opportunity and he took advantage of it.”
Sophomore Shea Eberhardt had two sacks and two fumble recoveries and earned first-team honors on the defensive line for his consistent play at nose guard.
“He shows up and works his tail off every day in practice,” Boss said. “If we had 10 clones of him, we could make a state run. I’m super-glad he’s a sophomore.”
Once you get past the fact that his name is Drew Breeze (spelled differently from former NFL star quarterback Drew Brees), you realize that the Jefferson senior is a fine quarterback in his own right.
In fact, the I-55 coaches felt strongly enough about Breeze to name him the conference’s offensive most valuable player as well as first-team QB. Breeze completed 88 of 130 pass attempts (68 percent) for 1,546 yards and 15 touchdowns, with only three interceptions. He also rushed for 233 yards and three more scores. He was a perfect 10-for-10 for 212 yards against Bayless and in a 49-0 rout of Grandview, he was 10-for-13 for 253 yards and four TDs.
“He’s so deserving of this award,” Rouggly said. “He tried to perfect his craft in the offseason. He was a true quarterback and nothing rattled him. He carried the ball later in the year for us. He will do some good things in life.
“We’re playing at Cuba and we were struggling offensively in the red zone. He made some highlight plays and huge throws that put us over the top. He made some big plays down the stretch. It’s going to be hard to replace him.”
Jefferson junior Konnor Armstrong was named to the first team on the offensive and defensive lines. He played guard on offense and Rouggly said he filled some big shoes left behind by 2021 graduates who’d been mainstays in the trenches.
“He moves well and he’s aggressive and he always gives you everything he’s got,” Rouggly said. “He was a catalyst in our pass and run game. This is the most balanced we’ve been at Jefferson since I’ve been here. He has a bright future for his senior year.”
Junior Mason Campbell started at center the last two years for the Blue Jays but moved to tackle in the latter games of this season.
“That says a lot about him from a mental standpoint,” Rouggly said about the late change. “He played his best the last four or five games of the season. His first step got better every week.”
Breeze had plenty of targets to choose from, including two all-conference first-teamers in seniors Colton Richardson at tight end and Chase Politte at wideout. Richardson ran, caught and passed for touchdowns this year, grabbing a school-record 30 receptions for 458 yards and six TDs, using his big body to shield defenders from the ball.
“He got better out of a three-point stance,” Rouggly said of Richardson. “He plays the game with true grit. As a receiver he made some huge catches. We knew when we needed a catch at a key moment, he would give it to us.”
Politte averaged a remarkable 27 yards per catch and scored five touchdowns. Rouggly said the senior is considering attending a military academy.
“Chase Politte played sparingly as a junior and sophomore,” Rouggly said. “He’s very deserving of the year he had. He made some huge plays and gave us that vertical threat that complemented Colton.”
Another two-way first-team pick for Jefferson is junior Sam Stokes at running back and linebacker. Stokes had 452 yards rushing, 225 receiving and scored eight TDs, and also led the Blue Jay defense with 12 tackles for a loss. Stokes played football his freshman year but not in 2020.
“Our conference was run-heavy and there were so many dynamic players,” Rouggly said. “Sam was one of those dual-threat running backs who could catch the ball. At outside linebacker, he doesn’t have the stats other linebackers have. Colton’s stats looked better, but when Sam tackled someone, they went backward. His form from a tackling standpoint was natural. It’s hard to teach that.”
Senior Will Breeze was the only player in the conference to take three first-team slots, at kicker, special teams and defensive back. Aside from his 460 yards rushing and receiving and six TDs, Breeze made all 46 extra-point tries, averaged 46 yards per kickoff and accumulated 409 yards returning punts and kicks, including three returns for touchdowns. On defense, the three-year starter had three interceptions.
“We could directional kick and when you can do that it helps out your defense tremendously,” Rouggly said. “With the ball in his hands in space, you never knew if he was going to score.”
ST. PIUS X
Senior Nate Ruble was injured at times this year because of his physical, punishing style as a running back and linebacker.
But Ruble took the field for every conference game and was voted the I-55’s defensive most valuable player of the year and first team at his two positions. And even though the Lancers had plenty of talent to win the conference, they were a much better team when Ruble played. He had a combined 694 yards rushing and receiving and scored nine touchdowns, including the game-winner in a 20-14 victory over St. Vincent at Perryville.
He was all over the field on defense with 130 tackles and three interceptions.
“He’s probably had better years as a junior or sophomore,” head coach Dan Oliver said. “The St. Vincent game was his best game on both sides of the ball and he looked like himself again. He had a stinger in the Bayless game. You don’t have time to rest a player like him in the middle of the season. He was the driving force in practice.”
Junior Christian McCline, the only returning starter on the Lancer offensive line, made the first team on both sides of the ball. Oliver said McCline and teammate Karter Bone powered the Lancers’ O-line. Meanwhile, “Christian was a run-stopping machine defensively,” the coach said. “He demanded double-teams. When he got into a groove later in the year, it made our defense so much better.”
Senior linebacker Michael Argana set a St. Pius record for tackles in a season with 174, including 11 for loss. On offense, he was equally capable running the ball or blocking for others.
“He’s a very selfless player who does what he can for his teammates,” Oliver said. “When we’d switch to certain defenses, he’d play end. When (punter) Logan (Jacobson) hurt his hand, Michael punted. He’s very athletic and very intelligent and always figured out what we need to get done.”
Jacobson, a senior, shared first-team kicking honors with Will Breeze and was the first-team punter after averaging 42 yards per boot. Jacobson has committed to kick at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
“He’s a bona fide (NCAA) Division I kicker,” Oliver said. “Logan broke his hand (against Jefferson) and he didn’t punt as much as he did in years past. Early in the season he made the ball do crazy things. We (scored) safeties in our first four or five games because Logan could put it right near the goal line. I hadn’t seen a string of safeties like that and that was set up by great punting.”
Voted as second-team quarterback, senior Collin Smith was upgraded to the first team on defense for his play at safety. Ruble didn’t play against Crystal City in the first round of districts, so Smith stepped up his game to run for 140 yards and four touchdowns in a 36-0 victory.
“No disrespect to Drew (Breeze), but Collin could have been the first-team quarterback,” Oliver said. “Drew did a great job as well, so you can’t take anything away from him. Collin was balanced running and passing.”