Leo quarterback AJ Restivo hands off to Peyton Wall during a 2017 game game against Angola. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)

You could put the names East Noble, Leo and New Haven in a hat, draw one and have about the same chance of successfully picking the Northeast 8 Conference champion as someone carefully studying the rosters.

It looks that close between those three frontrunners.

Perhaps a more intriguing question is whether another team could crash the Top 3, and shake things up. The most likely suspects are Columbia City (4-3 in NE8 last season) and DeKalb (3-4 in NE8 last season).

“(DeKalb) and us are in similar spots, where we’re seeing young kids within our program understanding what it means to compete in the conference,” Columbia City coach Brett Fox said. “Last year, we were knocking on the door. This year, it means being mentally prepared for those three (frontrunners), understanding what it takes to compete in those games.”

After three straight seasons finishing fourth, Columbia City would love to break into the top three.

“We want to be mentioned in that category, but we have to take care of it on the field first,” Fox said.

Kempf has steadily built numbers in his program and his freshman class is coming off an undefeated season.

“When I got here, we had less than 30 kids on the team and in my youthful ignorance I thought it was going to be easy to get kids out,” Kempf said. “It proved to be a challenge. But we have things rolling and in a good place mentally now.”


1. LEO

The Lions return the most experienced quarterback in the conference in AJ Restivo and he has offensive line standouts in Kyle Miazga, Tom Busch and Arland Coolman. Running back Alex Wertman, pound for pound one of the best players around, returns to carry the ball. So that’s a great start for Leo’s offense.

The defense has some major contributors up front, starting with Jayden Elwood, and at linebacker, with some younger talent sprinkled into the secondary.

The talent level at Leo, New Haven and East Noble remains close, but Restivo pushes the Lions ahead on paper.


Where will new coach Jimmy Linn make the most impact? It could be in his decision to hire offensive coordinator Chris Schenkel, who brings a new offensive approach to the Bulldogs. Schenkel, originally in the New Haven program, spent the last couple years with Homestead. So it’s possible some similarities with Homestead’s spread offense could surface.

Quarterback Tim Jordan, running back Stephen Owens and receiver Kentrel Thomas return as three proven offensive playmakers. Linn has been running the defense, so he expects to mix some new faces in with returning standouts such as Thomas and Chris Scheid.


Those discounting the Knights after the graduation of outstanding quarterback Andrew McCormick could be sadly mistaken. East Noble has a big, strong, veteran offensive line, a playmaker in Kaiden Harshberger and a talented quarterback ready to step in with Bailey Parker. Big man Spencer Pattee will make a difference on both sides of the ball, too. Jack Herber at linebacker has a great knack for big plays.


Kempf has built some stability and a better weight-room presence over his tenure and he returns four starters on the offensive line in juniors Tylar Pomeroy and Hoyt Stafford and seniors Jacob Barkey and Nick Waters. He has a three-year varsity player Kyle Dunham at quarterback and three solid running backs in senior Jon Bell, junior Landon Miller and sophomore Tanner Jack. A number of receivers are in the mix, including Eastside transfer Tanner Huff. The Barons’ defense returns a wealth of experience, including senior safety Aidan Friedel and senior linebacker Tanner Moore-Levy.


Look for the Eagles to try to ride the experience they have on the defensive side of the ball in seniors defensive end Drew Rethlake, defensive end Curtis Winebrenner, linebacker Jacob Wigent and defensive back Jon O’Dell and junior linebacker Tanner Martz. The offensive line, led by Liam Hesting, is another strength. Wigent also returns at running back, along with junior running back/wide receiver Michael Sievers and quarterback/wide receiver Jacob Bolt.


Third-year coach Josh Gerber said he’s most excited about the defense, which returns its front seven along with a couple of experienced defensive backs. Defensive players with varsity experfience include senior lineman Preston Graham, sophomore lineman Garrett Wright, senior linebackers Kyle Henschen, Landon Geiger, Cameron Harris, Zach Wingate, junior linebacker Sam Walker, senior defensive back Garrison Brege, junior defensive back Beldon Glasgow and sophomore defensive back Eli Riley. Riley takes over at quarterback with some skill players around him, including Brege, Geiger and Levi Leidig, who returns as a senior after not playing as a junior. The line includes Grant Scheumann, Gavin Laley, Henschen and Kyle Patrick.


Coach Marty Ballard and his staff spent time adding some more passing to the vaunted Bellmont running game, attending a three-day camp by Hall of Fame coach Bart Curtis, now at Warsaw. “The passing game should be a little more prevalent than in the past,” Ballard said. “That should make our fans happy, as well.”

Bellmont has options at quarterback with 6-3 junior Johnathan Wilder and 6-3 senior Noah Macklin, who’ll be at receiver if he’s not playing quarterback. Another nice-sized receiving target is 6-4 senior Aaron Lehrman. Junior Caden Friedt returns at running back and should be a force on defense at linebacker. Senior linebacker Colin Mills and defensive back Macklin will also be counted on to be strong on defense again.


The Vikings were 0-10 last season and could be poised to make the biggest turnaround in the state if all goes according to plan. They gained some energy with the recruitment of 6-6, 290-pound tackle Damon Kaylor, who committed to continue his career at Michigan State.

There are 19 seniors on the roster, all with some varsity experience, which coach Rick Burneau said he is excited to see. Christian Graft and Jack Curless join Kaylor on what could be a very effective offensive line. Senior Brett Kaylor takes over at quarterback and senior running back Logan Hippensteel returns after missing significant time last season with a broken hand. The defense should be keyed by senior linebacker Charlie Agnew, senior lineman Chandler Beaty, defensive lineman Curless and senior defensive back Brock Eltzroth.


MVP: AJ Restivo, Leo

Best leader: Liam Hesting, Columbia City

Most athletic: Stephen Owens, New Haven

Best blocker: Damon Kaylor, Huntington North

Best hands: Kaiden Harshberger, East Noble

Best arm: Tim Jordan, New Haven

Breakout star: Bailey Parker, East Noble

Unsung hero: Jayden Elwood, Leo


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