They will begin play in the large division -- in football only this fall and in all sports in fall 2017 -- along with Montello/Green Lake/Princeton (452), Horicon/Hustisford (363), Markesan (257), Pardeeville (255) and Dodgeland (247).
With the Vikings and Panthers addition, Deerfield (210) and Lourdes Academy (193) have dropped to the Trailways South, which also features area entrant Williams Bay (169), Johnson Creek (174), Randolph (163), Fall River (141), Rio (128) and Cambria-Friesland (110).
Obviously, those figures determine and say a lot, but it comes down to roster sizes and whether the programs can build up or maintain their numbers to be competitive.
Parkview has earned only one playoff berth in school history, that coming in 2002. The Panthers have enjoyed much more success, albeit inconsistently, with 10 trips, their most recent being in 2009-’10. However, they’ve won only one playoff game since reaching rounds three and four, respectively, behind standout Justin Beavers in 2001 and 2003.
While it won’t be easy, the path -- a 3-3 league mark earns a playoff spot -- appears much more realistic in the Trailways than against larger, perennial playoff squads such as Big Foot, Brodhead/Juda and Evansville/Albany from the Rock.
Changing landscape again
The Rock Valley Conference got larger by becoming smaller. Huh?
That’s because the league’s two smallest schools, Parkview and Palmyra-Eagle, have moved to the Trailways Large, leaving the 10 teams with the highest enrollment standing. And they’ll be standing in one division rather than two six-team conferences.
That presents ramifications concerning scheduling and qualifying for the postseason, although it eliminates messing around with whacky crossover scenarios and which contests are considered conference versus nonconference.
Enrollment disparity still exists. For example, McFarland, which came aboard in 2008, has 698 students and would be projected in Division 3 along with Evansville/Albany (664), Whitewater (573), Edgerton (551) and East Troy (541), while Big Foot (497), Turner (465), Brodhead/Juda (411) and Clinton (382) would be in D-4.
Six teams made the playoffs in 2015, and the South featured a four-way tie for first place, so the chase should prove to be exciting and competitive to say the least.
Can Badgers make another run?
Matt Hensler’s Badgers are perfect. At least when it comes to qualifying for the WIAA playoffs, which they’ve accomplished all nine seasons with him in charge of the football program.
Badger finished 6-1 while tying Waterford for the Southern Lakes championship last fall. Then the Badgers went on another spirited postseason run, reaching the Division 2 state semifinals for the second time in the last four years.
But they must replace a lot of talent in order to reach the playoffs again, including league rushing leader Tyler VanDeVelde, whose 1,546 yards nearly doubled the No. 2 ball carrier’s total.
Badger’s graduation losses also feature offensive linemen Nick Halpin and Josh Meier and fellow first teamers in defenders Logan Mitchell and Mick Borchert. But Mason DuMez, who finished with nearly 700 yards on the ground, is one of the team’s top returnees.
Trying to survive
Longtime rivals Delavan-Darien and Elkhorn are the two smallest members of the rugged Southern Lakes, so it’s not difficult to figure out why they’ve had to fight so hard to make the playoffs consistently in recent years.
Bret St. Arnauld begins his third season in charge of the Comets, who grabbed a Division 3 postseason berth despite a 3-4 league finish, losing in the first round to cap a 5-5 record.
DDHS will bank its hopes on seniors Ethan Cesarz and Jake Benzing. The former was a first team choice at tight end and linebacker, while Benzing earned honorable mention status at quarterback.
So, the Comets should remain explosive after posting 38 or more points in all five victories last fall. However, defense has been the issue -- they allowed 28 or more points in nine contests.
The Elks are coming off a campaign in which they won only one loop game and finished 2-7 overall.
Coach Tom Lee, a Delavan-Darien grad, and Elkhorn are looking for a third playoff berth since he took over from Dean Wilson in 2009. The Elks qualified in 2013 and again in ’14 when they finished in a four-way tie for the SLC crown.
Elkhorn is seeking its first playoff victory since 2004, while Delavan-Darien last won a postseason outing during its 2010 run, which also ended in the D-3 state semifinals.
Can Hilltoppers keep it going?
Catholic Central has qualified for the postseason all 16 years since parochial schools joined the WIAA.
The defending Metro Classic Conference champions, who play in Division 7 for the playoffs, ripped through their league schedule of larger schools at 7-0.
They then waltzed into the playoff semifinals, where they fell big time to eventual trophy winner Bangor. Still, it was the 13th time that the Hilltoppers reached at least the second round.
However, Central must replace such first team standouts as running back/linebacker Cole Kresken, quarterback Ben Heiligenthal, two-way linemen Andrew Kempken and Trevor Meinholz and outside ’backer Jacob Webley.
Heiligenthal and Kresken left the biggest holes after earning unanimous league offensive and defensive MVP honors, respectively.
Signal callers in the spotlight
Make no mistake. Football is a team sport. But having a quality performer calling the signals makes things much easier, and the Stateline area should enjoy its share of topnotch quarterbacks this year.
Among them are Janesville Craig’s Nick Kramer, Milton’s Isaac Phillips, Beloit Memorial’s Steven Makinen and Brodhead/Juda’s Matt Schmitt.
All four made Wissports.net’s Dave Krieg Award preseason watch list after receiving all-conference recognition, including the latter’s first team nod in the Rock Valley South.
Other top QBs should include Delavan-Darien’s Jake Benzing, Evansville’s Zach Mielke, Parker’s Jordan Bailey and Whitewater’s Daniel Fuller.
Can he do it again? Juan Reyes proved to be the consummate athlete last season for Beloit Turner.
He finished second in rushing, which included 186 yards during a stunning 44-43 win over Brodhead/Juda as an emergency starter at quarterback. Reyes provided a highlight-reel season, scoring as a runner, receiver and defender. He returned punts and kickoffs and did the punting and place kicking while also throwing a touchdown pass.
Reyes intercepted three passes and was second with 79 total tackles, helping first-year coach Derek Diehl’s squad qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1992 -- Diehl led Williams Bay to the postseason for the first time in 10 years in 2014.
And Reyes is only a junior this year, which should give nine Rock Valley defenses headaches all season.
Area boasts plenty of beef
It’s natural that the skill positions get most of the limelight, and that won’t change this season.
However, the Stateline area also features plenty of big guys upfront on both sides of the ball who should garner their share of accolades.
That long list includes Beloit Memorial’s Matt Vieth, East Troy’s Owen Goedland, Turner’s Tyler Burt, Clinton’s Cole Ciochon, Elkhorn’s Richie Heidemann, Milton’s Blake Knudsen and Parker’s tandem of Mylik Williams and Alonzo Velazquez.
Williams made the Big Eight’s first unit, while Vieth and Velazquez were named second teamers. Burt was selected the RVC South’s top lineman, while Ciochon earned the league’s top defensive player award.
Taking over the Red Hawks
Matt Lee, a 1999 Delavan-Darien High School graduate, will take over the Red Hawks from veteran Bill O’Leary, who retired shortly after his third season at his alma mater.
O’Leary led the Red Hawks to three straight WIAA playoff appearances and a share of two straight Badger South Conference titles.
Lee has coached football for more than 10 years, including the last three seasons at Beloit College and several years in Milton, where he is an agricultural science teacher. He has been the freshman coach, special teams coordinator and offensive coordinator at MHS, where he becomes the sixth coach in school history.
He inherits a program that must replace first team all-league choices in tight end Patrick O’Leary, receiver/defensive back Chaney Passer, center Matt Mawhinney, place-kicker Dylan Swerig, defensive lineman Phil Smecko, linebacker Drew Hermanson and defensive back Chase Frye.
Janesville Craig/Janesville Parker
It’s been a tough stretch on the prep gridiron in the City of Parks. Craig and Parker, along with their Madison foes, have struggled to compete with the likes of Sun Prairie, Middleton and Verona in recent years.
So, the question is whether either city rival can make a dent this fall.
Ben McCormick’s Cougars finished 3-6 in Big Eight Conference play and overall, marking it the sixth time in the last seven seasons that Craig has failed to reach the Division 1 playoffs after O’Leary’s squads made seven consecutive appearances.
Craig made the dance in 2014, but it has not won a playoff contest since earning the school’s only two victories in 1998-’99.
Clayton Kreger’s Vikings ended a three-year playoff drought last year despite a 4-5 league mark.
Turning around a few close decisions could vault Parker into contention after it opened the 2015 campaign with two-point losses to Middleton and Craig and later fell to Madison Memorial by three.
The Vikings will rely heavily on senior first team running back DJ Vance, the loop’s top rusher with 1,294 yards, to improve their fortunes.