The following article was originally published in NOW Newspapers under the "State of Play" feature, a series of bi-weekly feature columns penned by WSN General Manager Travis Wilson.
The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) presents both an Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year award in the state of Wisconsin each season, and usually, there are pretty clear candidates that emerge very early in the season. By the mid-point of the regular season, a handful of possible recipients usually stand out and it's a race to the finish to see who will grab the award. This year, I think there is a favorite emerging, but still several other quality players in the running and a long ways to go before the decision is made.
It takes the right combination of name recognition, statistical success, and team success to win the award. Generally, the player must be from a very successful team that is either unbeaten or a favorite to compete for a state title. However, two years ago we saw Brown Deer's Zach Baun receive the award in a close vote, despite the fact that his Falcons finished just 8-3 overall and went out in Level 2 of the playoffs. His individual brilliance was too much to pass up however, despite a strong pool of candidates.
To be clear, the Offensive Player of the Year is presented by the WFCA, and I do not have a vote in the process (it is voted on by the 22 District Reps). However, below is my take on the top eleven candidates right now (in alphabetical order), though there is a long ways to go before the selection is made after Level 4 of the postseason, and more candidates could certainly emerge.
Javian Dayne, RB, Waunakee – The son of former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, Javian has made a name for himself this year in a big way. The junior has seen limited carries in several games due to dominating Warriors victories, but has rushed for 959 yards and 13 touchdowns on 134 attempts this season. In a Week 2 win over perennial Badger-South power Monona Grove he had 226 yards and 5 touchdowns (4 in the second quarter), with 41 rushes for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns against previously unbeaten Mount Horeb/Barneveld in Week 5.
Brennan Demark, QB, Waukesha North – The Northstars impressive and unexpected strong start to the season, especially a program-defining win over Arrowhead, has been one of the talks of the high school football landscape this year. Demark deserves a good amount of credit for that, as he's led the offense to 33 points per game. On the season the senior signal-caller has completed 99 of 152 passes (65.1%) for 1,522 yards, with 20 touchdowns and just two interceptions. His passer rating is 132.2.
Brayton Duin, QB, Onalaska – Duin didn't even begin the year as the full-time quarterback, sharing the job to open things up. However, he quickly grabbed hold of the reins and never let go. He posted some very good games, but really erupted in Week 6. He threw for more than 400 yards in the first half against previously undefeated Sparta, finishing with 532 yards and 7 touchdowns. Onalaska will need to emerge from a crowded Mississippi Valley race as the league champion and likely make a deep playoff run for him to have a chance.
Zach Heckman, RB, Brookfield Central – The junior running back is the top offensive player on an unbeaten Brookfield Central team that appears to have what it takes to win a state title in Division 2 under head coach Jed Kennedy. Heckman has rushed for 1,016 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, with his best performance coming in the team's biggest game. In a Week 6 win over Greater Metro Conference heavyweight Marquette, he carried the ball 42 times for 238 yards and a pair of scores.
Nate Ihlenfeldt, RB, Notre Dame – A First Team All-Conference selection for the Tritons last year, Ihlenfeldt was limited by injury in the state title game win over Catholic Memorial. He's come back fully healthy this season and has carried the load for the team. Through six games he has 1,091 yards and 16 touchdowns on 142 carries, adding a receiving and punt return score as well. If the team remains unbeaten deep into the playoffs and threatens for a second straight state title, there will plenty of support for Ihlenfeldt to be considered for the award in November.
Hunter Johnson, RB, Darlington – In my opinion the favorite for the Player of the Year in Wisconsin, Johnson and the Darlington offense are just not being fair to opponents. A legitimate Division 1 college athlete with good size, power, and speed, he has run through and around defenders to the tune of 1,243 yards and 24 touchdowns on just 72 attempts, as he finds the end zone once every three carries. Averaging 17.3 yards per attempt, he has only played in the second half once this year. Against rival Cuba City the Wisconsin preferred walk-on commit had 13 rushes for 360 yards and 4 touchdowns, a 45-yard receiving score, and returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown all before halftime.
Ben Nienhuis, QB, Oconomowoc – A returning First Team All-State selection, Nienhuis has put up very good numbers this year, with ratings and averages exceeding what he did last year, though his attempts are down slightly. Oconomowoc is undefeated, though they've needed to rally for victories more times than you'd expect. Averaging 262 yards per game, he has a QB rating of 120 with 15 passing touchdowns to just one interception, adding 7 rushing scores as well.
Quinn Pierner, QB, Bay Port – Pierner has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in recent memory, at least through six games of the regular season. While not tasked with throwing as much as other quarterbacks on this list, he's completed 81.3% of his passes for 931 yards and 14 touchdowns, with no interceptions. His passer rating is just shy of perfect at 158.0. He's also become more of a threat in the running game, going for 555 yards and 9 scores as the Pirates are unbeaten to start the season.
Tyler Szews, RB, Menasha – Szews missed the Bluejays' first game of the season, but quickly made up for lost time, combining for 758 yards and 8 touchdowns the next two games. On the season he has 1,141 yards and 15 touchdowns on 116 carries, averaging a state-best 228.2 yards per contest. Menasha is undefeated and looking like a state title contender once again, which bodes well for Szews to earn a spot on the WFCA All-State team and a shot at Player of the Year honors.
Danny Vanden Boom, QB, Kimberly – Kimberly has posted a number of dominating victories this year, and Vanden Boom has not thrown the ball as much as others on this list as a result. However, he's been very good once again this year after leading the Papermakers to a state title last season when he threw for 25 touchdowns with no turnovers. He is completing 72.3% of his passes for 1,041 yards and 15 touchdowns, though does have a pair of interceptions on the season. His passer rating remains very strong at 139.2, however.
Josh Weiss, QB, Cedar Grove-Belgium – The Rockets have a conference loss already and may not win their league title in a small-school conference, but the stats Weiss is putting up are too good to overlook. He has completed 74.5% of his passes this year, averaging 16.7 yards per attempt. As you can imagine, he's hit on numerous big plays, with 28 touchdown passes and no interceptions, throwing for 1,771 yards. His passer rating is near-perfect at 155.9. A long-shot due to the small-school environment and perhaps not winning the league title, his team will need to advance deep into the playoffs for him to be in contention.
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