While the state of Wisconsin does not have spring football like states in the South, it's never too early to start thinking about next season.
Over the next several weeks, WisSports.net will be producing Off-Season Football Team Rankings, featuring a Top 15 for each division as well as Others to Watch.
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While things will certainly change prior to the start of next year (players lost to injury, grades, transfers plus players gained via transfer, returning from injury, players improving, etc.), this list will provide a general guide as we look to the 2023 campaign and of course facilitate discussion. Please note, divisions are based on last year's cutlines; divisional placement for some teams may change for the 2023 playoffs; official enrollments for the 2023 season are not available yet from the WIAA and will also impact eventual divisional placement.
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Previous WSN Spring Football Rankings
Tradition never graduates, and no matter who has led the Papermaker program over the last two decades, the success has continued. After Steve Jones stepped aside following the 2021 season, Chad Michalkiewicz moved over from De Pere and guided the team to its eighth state title in the last 16 years. The Papermakers lost a late season game to Fond du Lac but responded the next week with a win over Neenah to secure a share of the FVA title, going on to post an impressive run of playoff victories over Fondy, Neenah, Waunakee, Bay Port, and finally Mukwonago to capture the Division 1 championship. While 45 letterwinners return this season, the Papermakers will bring back just three starters on offense and six on defense. "We will have a very strong team as a lot of young players got a lot of playing time in varsity games last fall," said Michalkiewicz. "We will be young overall on offense." Gavin Tyson will take on a bigger role on offense after going for nearly 600 rushing yards behind Blake Berry. Carson Pendleton and Braedon Ellefson could be in the competition to take over at quarterback. Defensive lineman Sam McGivern leads a strong defensive group.
Arrowhead was very close to a special season in 2022, but lost three games by a combined five points and had to settle for third in the Classic Eight and out in Level 3 of the playoffs. With a load of talent returning this season, including three seniors heading to Power 5 teams, there are high expectations out in Hartland. Derek Jensen, a Wisconsin commit, and Garrett Sexton, who is committed to Penn State, lead the offensive line. They're in front of Vance Holtz, one of the top Class of 2025 quarterbacks in the region. Nick Cinelli and Jacob Siner both saw time carrying the ball last season, while Kyle Janke provides experience at receiver. Iowa State commit Jace Gilbert is the lone returning defensive lineman but there are five total starters back on defense. Arrowhead gets the slightest of early edges in the loaded Classic Eight, with huge games against Mukwonago, Muskego, and Kettle Moraine looming this season.
Mukwonago entered 2022 as the number one team in our rankings and looked the part pretty much all season, opening with dominating victories over Sussex Hamilton and Sun Prairie East before winning a share of the Classic Eight title, the only regular season defeat coming against eventual D2 champion Kettle Moraine. After downing both Muskego and Sussex Hamilton a second time in the playoffs, the Indians faced Kimberly in the Division 1 title game. Unfortunately state Player of the Year Wynn Stang was injured early in the game and wouldn't return, and Mukwonago couldn't hold off the Papermakers in a 34-30 defeat. Muk-Town has some re-tooling to do on offense following the graduation of Stang, quarterback Evan Herbig, and the top pass-catchers from a year ago. The Indians are strong up front, especially with Nathan Roy, one of the country's top offensive linemen, as well as Second Team All-Conference pick Grant Stromberg. The defense has some holes to fill as well, but the program is extremely deep and there are talented players ready to step in and keep Mukwonago among the elite in the league and the state.
Muskego had an outstanding season once again in 2022, but the Warriors could not get past rival Mukwonago, falling in the regular season and in the playoffs, both games at home. It was the only losses of the season for Muskego, who finished 10-2 overall and alone in second place in the Classic Eight. The league is shaping up to be as elite and competitive as ever, with three teams ranked inside the top five of D1 plus defending Division 2 champion Kettle Moraine. Muskego welcomes back just eight starters from a year ago, but all of them were all-league in some fashion. Six starters return on offense, including Aiden and Ashton Krause plus quarterback Bradyn Horn. On defense, Nick McCullough and Jack Ploeckelman are returning starters for the Warriors. Last season the program went 26-4 across all levels and there will certainly be an infusion of talent ready to help out at the varsity level.
Sussex Hamilton had an outstanding 2022 campaign, winning the Greater Metro Conference outright and advancing to the state semi-finals. However, the Chargers just couldn't handle Mukwonago, losing to the Indians 52-28 to open the season and falling 47-21 to close things out. Entering his fourth year at the helm, head coach Justin Gumm has a group that should be favored in the GMC once again. "Overall we will have great depth, with 35 seniors and competition at every position," he said. Gumm especially likes his receiver group on offense and the linebackers on defense. However, they'll enter a season without an established quarterback for the first time in a while following the graduation of multi-year starter Nate Kollath. There are seven starters back on offense and six on defense for Sussex Hamilton.
Bay Port went through the regular season undefeated and came within a game of advancing to the state championship for just the second time in school history, but old nemesis Kimberly ended things once again, downing the Pirates 42-21 in Level 4. It was the fourth time in the last five postseasons that Bay Port lost to Kimberly in the playoffs. Looking ahead to 2023, the Pirates have to replace 11 players that earned First Team All-Conference recognition. One First Teamer does return, and he's a good one -- linebacker Landon Gauthier, who recently committed to Wisconsin. Offensively, the team has to replace quarterback Cole Bensen, who went for more than 3000 total yards a year ago. Running back Blake Buchinger does return, however, after rushing for 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Oak Creek finally broke through and defeated neighboring rival Franklin last season, doing so in a big way in a 35-7 victory in Week 6. However, the Knights would drop a shocker to Racine Park a couple weeks later and have to share the league crown. Not pleased with their postseason seed that saw them go on the road to open the playoffs, Oak Creek would fall to Badger 21-14 to finished 7-3 on the season. It wasn't the ending the team had hoped for after a 6-1 start and victory over Franklin, but sets the stage for perhaps even more big things in 2023. The team returns a trio of players who will be four-year starters, including returning Southeast Conference Offensive Player of the Year Cade Palkowski. Last season he threw for 1,677 yards and 20 touchdowns and ran for 534 yards and 8 more scores. He's joined in the backfield by 1200-yard rusher Jackson Phelps. Among a total of eight returning starters on offense is league Offensive Lineman of the Year Brock Hodge. The defense returns seven starters, led by D1 recruit Drew Braam. The Knights will be tested with a Week 2 game at Muskego before the big Franklin contest set for Week 6 in Oak Creek.
Despite significant graduation losses from the 2021 Division 1 state title team, the 2022 iteration of the Franklin Sabers had high expectations about remaining among the state's elite. They put together a solid campaign, but dropped the season opener to Catholic Memorial in a battle of defending champs, fell to rival Oak Creek for the first time since 2014, and exited the playoffs in a 42-18 loss to Muskego in Level 2. That was a very young group, and 15 starters return for head coach Louis Brown and his talented coaching staff. Eight are back on offense, including Division 1 running back Terrance Shelton plus fellow multi-year standout Jacques Brooks at receiver. Joseph Kallay split time at quarterback as a sophomore last year and is also back. A strong group of seven returning starters on defense includes Jace Miller, Teagan Fox, Manny Joseph, Will Graffin, and Talan Summers in the front seven.
Fond du Lac finished 5-5 overall, lost in the first round of the playoffs, and tied for fourth in the FVA. However, the Cardinals were the only team to beat D1 champion Kimberly last year, taking down the Papermakers late in the regular season. Sam Plucker enters his second season as the team's head coach with a veteran roster hoping to challenge at the top of the once-again loaded Fox Valley Association. A strong senior group leads a roster with 42 returning letterwinners and 15 starters back. The offense is strong up front behind Cameron Schmidt and Matt Rusch, with Max Mengel one of the state's top tight ends as well. There are some solid returning skill weapons, but the team does have to replace All-Conference quarterback Stephen Schreiter, leading rusher Brayden Eigenbrodt, and top receiver Ethan Wagner-Lang.
In shocking news from the world of Wisconsin high school football, Waunakee was very good last year and is expected to be very good once again. Things were a bit different last year in a number of ways, as the Warriors had to deal with the Sun Prairie schools dropping into the Badger-Large, though they defeated both East and West, and once the playoffs came around, Waunakee found itself in a bit of unfamiliar territory as a Division 1 team. After going unbeaten through the regular season, the Warriors took down Sheboygan North and Middleton before succumbing to eventual D1 champ Kimberly in Level 3. With one of the deepest programs in the state, the Warriors should remain in contention for the Badger-Large, where Sun Prairie East will provide stiff competition. Wisconsin Badger tight end commit Robert Booker and dynamic receiver David Emerich provide a couple talented pass-catching options on offense, where Will Lenoch and Nathan Olsen are returning Honorable Mention All-Conference linemen. Wade Bryan is an elite defensive end coming off an All-State junior campaign, and he's joined on that side of the ball by five others who earned some form of all-league recognition.
Neenah put together one of the best seasons in school history and the Rockets were undoubtedly one of the top teams in the state, rising to third in the WSN Coaches Poll at one point. Unfortunately, they couldn't get past the eventual champion Kimberly Papermakers, falling once late in the regular season and again in a one-point heartbreaker in Level 2. The Rockets should be in the mix in the FVA once again, which will feature a very strong group of teams in 2023. Evan Vanevenhoven racked up more than 2000 total yards of offense last year as just a sophomore and is one of the top skill players in the area. He'll be joined in the backfield back explosive athlete Grant Dean, who didn't carry it much but averaged nearly 15 yards per carry when he did tote the rock.
Appleton North finished third in the FVA last season, dropping a pair of tough games to Kimberly and Neenah. Riding one of the stingiest defenses in the state, the Lightning advanced to Level 3 before falling 17-10 to Bay Port. There are some talented defenders coming back, though just four starters return in total on that side of the ball. One of them is D1 linebacker Brock Arndt, however, a tackling machine. The Lightning will have three new starters in the secondary. Over on offense, five starters are back as the unit tries to improve from last season. The strength is up front on the offensive line as well as an experienced quarterback in Luke Kritzer.
Middleton lost three of its first four games last year but righted the ship and won six straight before falling to Waunakee for a second time in Level 2 of the playoffs. It was a tough season, and things got even tougher in the off-season, when an investigation was launched into the program that is still ongoing, and head coach Jason Pertzborn stepped aside soon after. The Cardinals saw multiple candidates turn down their open head coaching position, and instead will turn to former head coach Tim Simon as well as Joe Poehls on an interim basis for this season. It is a roster loaded with talent in a league ripe for the taking. On offense, the team returns starting quarterback Gabe Passini, First Team All-Conference running back Bryce Falk plus talented linemen Kristian Peterson and Hudson Cleary amongst others. The defense features Rutgers recruit Sam Pilof, standout linemen Dom Frost and Riquone Burks, plus outstanding defensive back Thomas D'Onofrio. If the team can keep the focus on the field, there's a lot to like about what they can accomplish in 2023.
The Badger Badgers badgered their way into an outright Southern Lakes Conference title last season, then took down Oak Creek in Level 1 of the playoffs. The run would come to an end a week later against Mukwonago, however. With ten starters returning on the offensive side of the ball in the team's flexbone offense, the team should be able to grind out opponents once again. Quarterback JP Doyle is the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in the Southern Lakes after rushing for more than 1100 yards with another 694 throwing the ball. Landon Nottestad was the second-leading rusher a year ago with more than 900 yards and also is back. There are a few more early concerns on the defensive side of the ball, where there's less experience and depth, with just five starters back.
Marquette finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Greater Metro Conference, but were the only conference team to defeat Sussex Hamilton in the regular season. However, in a Level 2 rematch, Sussex Hamilton played the reverse card in a 21-17 victory. That left Marquette with a 6-5 overall mark, though against a very tough schedule. They should be a threat to challenge Sussex Hamilton at the top of the league this year. "We have excellent senior leadership and a large number of returning players with experience," said head coach Keith Klestinski. "There are 13 returning starters (six on offense and seven on defense) and four others who played major roles." The offense does need to replace All-Conference quarterback Luke Novotny. There are some solid pieces to work with both up front and at the skill positions offensively, and the team has a leg up with kicker and punter Erik Schmidt, one of the best in the country in the Class of 2025 who already has a Wisconsin offer.
Kenosha Indian Trail
Travis Wilson serves as the WisSports.net General Manager, Football Editor, and contributing writer for other parts of the site. Wilson was selected as part of the Sports 40 Under 40 list by Coach & AD Magazine and the National High School Athletic Coaches Association for 2019. The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) named Travis the 2015 recipient of the Dave McClain Distinguished Service Award. He currently serves on the WFCA Executive Board as the Website and Communications Director and is a member of the Executive Board of the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association. A graduate of Richland Center High School and Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Travis was a three-sport athlete in high school (football, baseball, basketball) and currently resides in Reedsburg. You can follow him on Twitter at @travisWSN.
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