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Thursday, January 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  High school sports

2019 Prep Football Preview: Mead hopes to step out from the pack in Greater Spokane League 4A race

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 4, 2019

All schools see significant players graduate every year. It’s just part of the process as students mature and move on with the rest of their lives.

But if it seems like the Greater Spokane League 4A ranks have been hit harder this year with talent graduating, you might not be imagining things.

Out of the 14 players named to the GSL first-team all-league offense last season, 11 were seniors. On defense, it was 13 out of 17. Five of the top six rushers are gone. Most programs are turning to new quarterbacks.

That should lead to a wide-open race. But then, it usually is.

Gonzaga Prep, Mead, Lewis and Clark and Central Valley all finished within two games of each other last season, with Ferris and University trying to break into the pack.

Records listed are 2018 results.

Mead (7-5, 5-2) wants more. The Panthers finished a game behind G-Prep last season, then proceeded to beat Richland 35-21 in a crossover game before bowing to Graham-Kapowsin 45-38 in the first round of state.

Fifth-year coach Benji Sonnichsen said his squad has lofty goals.

“We always try to compete for the league championship,” he said. “You know, you gotta knock off Gonzaga Prep, because they’ve been kind of leaders of the pack here recently. But yeah, that’s where our eyes are at. And that’s what our goal is: to be the GSL champions.”

While the Panthers suffered from the talent drain across the league, they may be one of the better prepared of the group to recover.

“We always talk about, you know, reloading,” Sonnichsen said. “We’re not rebuilding, we’re reloading. So our numbers have been pretty consistent with that.”

Mead has 40 lettermen returning and 11 starters, including all-league signal caller Ryan Blair, who led the league in passing yards last year with 1,296 yards and 17 touchdowns – against just four interceptions.

“When you think of a basketball player, that’s a gym rat,” Sonnichsen said. “He’s a gym rat for football.”

Sonnichsen praised his senior quarterback for organizing throwing sessions all summer.

“He started getting kids around the whole city to throw with him.

“He loves the quarterback position. He throws a really good ball, and guys like catching it from him.”

In addition to Blair, Mead may boast the best player in the conference pound-for-pound in DE/TE Ben Voigtlaender, the GSL Defensive Player of the Year his junior season and an all-state selection. He already has at least one Division I offer in his pocket.

“In my experience, I’ve never seen a more tenacious, more disciplined in the weight room every single day, like, top-top level athlete in all regards,” Sonnichsen said. “He is tenacious. He will wear you out during the course of a game. It’s remarkable.”

All-league offensive lineman Trace Franks is back, as well as honorable mention receiver Keli’i Zalopany. Sonnichsen also boasts about the playmaking ability of senior Evan Wiersma.

“Everyone will know about him,” he said. “No. 8, he’s pretty good.”

Sonnichsen thinks this is the year folks across the state will start noticing his Panthers.

“I think we’re on the verge,” he said. “We were the No. 2 team last year, we were the No. 3 team the year before that. So yeah, we don’t want to be the average team anymore.

“If we’re the GSL champs this year, now we’re starting to get into that conversation a little bit.”

Central Valley (6-4, 4-2) admittedly had an up-and-down season in 2018. One week the Bears seemed like world-beaters. The next?

Fourth-year coach Ryan Butner admits to looking for a little more consistency this season.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said.

“I think last year we had a lot of kids that were first-year varsity players, and so that’s where the inconsistencies came in.

“But this year, we have a lot of guys that are returning starters, especially on the offensive side of the ball. And our offseason, in preseason, so far has been pretty consistent. And balanced.”

It starts with the guy throwing the ball – returning QB Matt Gabbert. He has an arm as big as anyone in the state but had trouble at times last season connecting with a young receiving corps.

“Our wide receivers are the ones that last year were thrown into the mix pretty early, and maybe not quite ready,” Butner said. “And boy, they’ve just matured and grown and gotten stronger and faster. We’re two-deep at each wide receiver position with no drop-off for their subs.”

It will help that CV should boast a strong offensive line, with all-league performers Bradley Fillis and Preston Grote back to anchor the line. Tailback Ryan Harper is back from injury to step in for league offensive MVP Hunter Chodorowski and all-league back Zach Jongeward.

“I don’t think you can replace those guys. They were so special,” Butner said. “You replace them with another guy that has different qualities, and he’ll be his own person.”

Butner likes his chances in a crowded league.

“This team has the ability to have a special season if leadership can emerge and the offense can click,” Butner said.

Ferris (6-4, 3-4) graduated nine starters but has a senior class that has experience at the varsity level. Third-year coach Tom Yearout thinks it’s time for that group to lead.

“We need to develop depth so we do not have players going both ways for an entire game, and we also need our offensive line to take the next step in being able to block quality defensive fronts.”

Caleb Halvorsen was a first-team all-league center and will provide some of the leadership Yearout wants.

One of the position battles still being waged is at quarterback, where seniors Jack Clavel and Kwame Qadir look to step up.

“We have two players competing to play quarterback and both have played significant snaps the last two seasons,” Yearout said.

Gonzaga Prep (9-3, 6-1) might have been hit harder by graduation than any other team in the league. All 11 of the Bullpups’ all-league players were seniors.

GSL MVP Connor Halonen – the Bullpups’ do-everything quarterback – has moved on, but 12th-year coach Dave McKenna always finds a way to compete – if not dominate.

Senior QB Jacob Keyes will get the opportunity to guide McKenna’s mulitple-option offense, handing off to backs Cayden Kerr and Jaden Ortega, who made the switch from linebacker.

G-Prep will lean heavily on an experienced defense, led by senior LB Zane Melzer and DE Austin Reed.

McKenna has 26 lettermen coming back, but just six with starting experience. With an opening-night game against Idaho 5A powerhouse Coeur d’Alene, then a trip to California to face St. Ignatius, McKenna has to coach ’em up quickly.

Lewis and Clark (7-3, 5-2) started strongly last season, winning its first seven games – including a 41-39 win over CV in the first league game of the season. But the Tigers faded down the stretch, losing three straight, including a 31-14 decision to Chiawana in a crossover game.

As if coach Dave Hughes – in his ninth season at LC but 33rd in the league – wasn’t busy enough, he has taken over the athletic director duties.

“We have many players that were backups last year and are excited to have their shot at starting positions,” Hughes said.

GSL leading rusher Keani Guthmueller, who gained 1,115 yards with 14 touchdowns, returns. His breakaway speed should be a weapon for the Tigers. Junior Keel Potter is expected to get carries.

Junior Jace Parbon takes over at QB from all-leaguer Michael Flaherty. He will be protected by senior Malachi Moore (6-4, 265), one of the toughest players in the league.

University (5-5, 2-5) starts fresh this season with a new coach. Kaleb Madison inherits a squad that saw 20 lettermen and 10 starters graduate, including four players with all-league honors.

Madison brings some honors with him. He was named as an “NFL High School Coach of the Week” in 2012 while coaching the Tekoa-Oakesdale/Rosalia squad and is a two-time state title winner.

He already has a familiar face to work with: his nephew, Tanner, is a returning All-GSL two-way lineman who is getting attention from recruiters at the next level for his skill – and size at 6-4, 320.

Madison expects to pound the ball on offense, with Elijah Moore handing the play calling and seniors Kobe Gilbert and Danny Meyer carrying the ball.

Meyer and Tanner Madison will lead the defense as well as DB Larry Kennedy, one of the better defenders in the league.

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