Eagles anxious to open season, challenge for title

Running back Stevann Brown (left), a senior from Natrona High in Casper, and quarterback Dalton Holst, a junior from Campbell County High at Gillette, are expected to help the Chadron State Eagles have a potent offense this fall.

CHADRON — Long-time rivals Chadron State and Black Hills State will launch their football seasons Saturday night in Spearfish, both hoping to get off to a winning start and contend for Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference laurels. Kickoff is set for 6 o’clock. It will be the Yellow Jackets’ first home game under the lights since 2010.

Last year’s game in Chadron was memorable. It was the first played at Elliott Field after it had been renovated in the summer of 2018 and the contest was the Eagles’ first night home game in 42 years.

That season-opener was due to begin at 6:30 p.m., but a rain and lightning storm delayed the kickoff until 9 o’clock and it was nearly midnight before the Eagles wrapped up the 45-8 victory.

Both teams are well-stocked with veterans (CSC has 19 seniors, BHSU has 13), and both have added several transfers to add more clout.

Chadron State finished 7-3 while sharing third place in the RMAC a year ago. The Jackets were 3-8 overall and 2-8 in the conference to finish ninth.

CSC head coach Jay Long, who was the head coach at Black Hills three years before coming to his alma mater eight years ago, said his players have had an excellent preseason, but are anxious to get it over with and begin the battle for excellence in the RMAC. He sees no reason why they can’t challenge for the championship.

Although the Eagles graduated leading rusher and scorer Kevin Coy (962 yards and 15 touchdowns) and had to refill four spots in the line, the coaches are confident the offense will be potent again. Long has frequently said this team will be as strong at the skill positions as any in the conference.

A primary reason for that confidence is junior quarterback Dalton Holst, who has thrown for 4.935 yards and 36 touchdowns while calling the shots the past two seasons. Long says the Gillette, Wyo., native can rightly be called an all-star candidate.

The Eagles’ new offensive coordinator, Logan Masters, agrees. He says Holst is tops, both athletically and mentally.

“He’s spent the time in the weight room to get bigger and stronger and has made a good arm even better,” Masters said. “He watches lots of film and takes notes. He’s always calm and puts everything on his shoulders. He never blames anyone else. We can’t ask for anything more.”

The CSC passing game also is loaded with talented receivers. All but six of Holst’s 195 completions last fall were caught by players who are still available. The reception leaders include seniors Jackson Dickerson, Brandon Fullerton and Tevon Wright, who combined for 99 catches for 1,376 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago, and junior Cole Thurness, who paced the team with 46 receptions for 701 yards and seven TDs.

Sophomore Chad Mikelson and redshirt freshman Jahani Wright, Tevon’s brother, are in the mix.

Tight end is another position where the Eagles are loaded. Standout Colt Foster of Hemingford, who caught 42 passes in 2017, has returned after missing last season because of an injury. Foster’s replacement, Matt Vargas, also is back, giving the Eagles a top-notch tandem at an important position.

The Eagles aren’t planning to stage a full-fledged aerial show. They believe they also will have a potent ground game. Senior Stevann Brown and sophomore Elijah Miles combined for 1,030 yards last fall while backing Coy. In addition, Priest Jennings has been a pleasant surprise in practice after missing the past two seasons because of injuries. Masters said the trio has good speed and may share the ball carrying duties almost equally.

As the offensive line mentor, Long has done his best to rebuild the Eagles’ forward wall. Early in fall camp, he moved senior Jared Maciejczak from right tackle to center and selected the other starters. That five has remained in place and will be an effective unit, Long believes.

Besides Maciejczak, the others are senior Marvin Williams and junior Jake Norris at the guards, and redshirt freshman Juan Estrada-Sanchez and junior transfer Justin Calderon at the tackles. The five average about 6-foot-4, 290 pounds.

Defensively, the Eagles probably don’t have as many recognizable names or as much experience as the offense, but the new coordinator, Craig Jersild, and his staff are dedicated to reclaiming the strangle hold CSC once had on RMAC defensive supremacy.

“We’re trying to get better every day,” Jersild said. “We’ve simplified things and want to play with great intensity. We hope to get the ball for the offense by creating plenty of turnovers.”

Returning starters Calder Forcella and Brandon Hopkins are expected to anchor a solid front line. Middle linebackers Tyler Lewis and Travis Wilson figure to rank with the best in the conference at that position.

Four seniors — cornerbacks DeAndre Barthwell and Demetrius McFadden and safetys Tyree Fryar and Du’Wan Murphy — should provide stability in the secondary. Murphy, a transfer from Humboldt State after it dropped football, is talented and apt to make some big plays.

Long says Barthwell ranks with the RMAC’s best at cornerback. Three players from the area, senior Micah Scherbarth of Gordon and sophomores Brendon Brehmer and Buster Wilson, both of Alliance, are ticketed for big roles on defense.

At the end of spring workouts, senior Will Morgan was expected to handle both the placekicking and punting duties, but a freshman from California, Colton Dolder, has claimed the field goal and extra point chores. Dickerson and Brown are expected to handle the kick return duties.

Chadron State coaches don’t know quite what to expect from Black Hills. Masters said film of late season games show the Yellow Jackets were playing an entirely different defensive scheme than they had used in last year’s opener.

Jesild notes the Jackets have a new offensive coordinator, making it difficult to prepare for the game, then added, “If we do things right we’ll be OK.”

Thirteen starters from a year ago return at Spearfish. That includes the entire offensive line, along with running back Payten Gilmore, who rushed for 793 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.

The Jackets will be breaking in a new quarterback after four-year starter Ryan Gilmore graduated. Five candidates were in the mix with Andrew Tovar, a 6-2, 175-pound sophomore from El Monte, Calif., getting the starting nod after transferring from the University of Arizona.

According to the Black Hills State website, Tovar threw for 10,567 yards and 142 touchdowns while earning the conference’s Most Valuable Player award three times. He beat out the Jackets’ alternate quarterback last year for the job.

Five starters have returned on defense for Black Hills. Coach John Reiners was pleased last spring when recruiting efforts netted several hefty defensive linemen. Former Gordon-Rushville standout Korby Campbell is among the Jackets’ young linebackers. Mitch McKibbin of Bayard is an alternate receiver.

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