Back in mid-August, we knew that the 2012 Yankton Bucks football squad would be a good one. A talented senior class including QB Michael Rucker, OL/DL Kellen Soulek, Logan Van Winkle, & Dustin Hopper, RB/LB’s Evan Schroeder & James Hisek, and TE/DE/P Troy Hunhoff brought a wealth of experience back from a 2011 team that finished the year 7-4 while advancing to the second round of the Class 11AA playoffs.
The most notable loss heading into the season was the graduation of 2011 All-ESD RB Connor Fitzsimmons. The Bucks planned to use a platoon of running backs to start the season and quickly found out that they had a number of talented players who could carry the ground game in 2012.
Much like 2011, the 2012 season saw the Bucks dominate lesser ESD opposition (after a week-one scare against Pierre) on their way to a 5-0 start and a match-up against Roosevelt. Last year, the eventual state-champion Rough Riders marched into Crane-Youngworth Field and humiliated the Bucks 41-0. This year however, the Bucks played much improved but still could not overcome some key mistakes and fell to Roosevelt at Howard Wood Field, 35-21.
Next came undefeated and top-ranked Washington to Yankton. Last season, the Bucks traveled to Sioux Falls and fell to the Warriors 29-14. This year, however, the Warriors showed up and played perhaps their most complete game of the season, scoring on the first offensive play of the game, recovering a Bucks fumble on the ensuing kick off and torching Yankton 52-8.
A 40-0 victory over winless Mitchell set up a week nine showdown in Brandon for the ESD title aginst the undefeated and high-flying Lynx. BV defeated Yankton 49-7 in Yankton a year ago and the reception in Brandon this year was no better, as the Lynx were relentless on offense, racking up yards and points at ease in their 42-0 triumph.
After playing three of the top teams in the state during the final four weeks of the season, the Bucks (6-3, 6-1 ESD regular season) welcomed Aberdeen Central to Yankton for a first-round playoff rematch of week four (a 42-14 Bucks win). After struggling with a new offense in the first quarter, the Bucks reversed back to their traditional set and outplayed the Golden Eagles to a 44-20 win and a second-round road trip to McEneaney Field against their old rival O’Gorman Knights.
In a game where the Bucks held a 17-7 halftime lead and by all means should have won, they lost their offensive rhythm in the second half and gave the Knights just enough opportunity to stage a classic fourth-quarter comeback. O’Gorman outscoring the Bucks 14-0 in the final period on their way to the 21-17 victory.
So, for the second year in a row, Yankton finished their season with an overall record of 7-4 at the hands of the Knights.
Earlier in the year Rucker set a new Bucks career passing yardage record, although his play was sometimes erratic down the stretch in big games, and his two fourth-quarter interceptions again O’G proved extremely costly. The senior southpaw gave the Bucks an offensive option that helped to open up the rushing attack (more on that in a second) but he also seemed hesitant to make quick reads and get rid of the ball to his receivers at times. Rucker took too many sacks in the big games and spent too much time dancing around the pocket rather than trusting his big receivers (6’4 J.J. Hejna, 6’4 Troy Hunhoff) in their routes. Still, he will go down as the most successful passing quarterback in Bucks history and was constantly praised by his coaching staff and teammates for this leadership on and off the field. Rucker earned his first All-ESD nod for his accolades.
Questions about the ground game after the departure of Fitzsimmons were soon answered as the platoon of seniors Schroeder and Hisek and sophomores Jordan Lightner and Levi Davis proved to be more than capable of carrying the rock for the Bucks. Although injuries plagued this group as a whole for the entire year, whoever was healthy at any given time and received the bulk of the carries was able to move the ball effectively without costly fumbles to speak of. Sure the ground game struggled against Washington and BV – as did all other aspects of the Bucks play in those lopsided losses, but these four running backs consistently gained yardage when needed and found the end zone on numerous occasions.
A healthy Levi Davis against O’Gorman (he missed the game) could have been the difference that the Bucks would have needed to pull off the upset. All four RB’s saw their individual stats suffer due to sharing the workload amongst each other (and also with Rucker getting some carries – especially near the goal line) but they complimented each other beautifully. Nowhere was that more apparent than watching the sophomores of Lightner and Davis form a thunder (Lightner) and lightning (Davis) combination that the New York Giants only dreamed of with Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber a decade ago.
Troy Hunhoff proved to be a multiple-position threat as he was a large presence from the tight end position for Rucker as well as an excellent blocker on the end of the line. He also provided the D-Line with an anchor from the defensive end position and had an excellent first-half of the season from his punter position before a knee injury forced those duties on sophomore Brady Hale. Hunhoff earned an All-ESD team selection at TE for his performance.
Kellen Soulek, Dustin Hopper and Steven McKee all earned All-Conference selections for their play on the line (officially Soulek as OL and Hopper and McKee as DL). Soulek was a force on both sides of the ball all year and should be a shoe-in for the Argus Leader Elite 45 team for the best 45 players across the state regardless of class. In my interviews with opposing coaches all season long leading up to game-day the one constant when asking them of what challenges Yankton presented to their team was Soulek as a disruptive force on D and dominate blocker on O. Senior Logan Van Winkle gets an honorable-mention selection from me as he was having a great season before an injury at the midway point derailed his final year as a Buck.
Hisek earned an All-ESD selection at linebacker and he was joined at that position with his running back companions Lightner, Schroeder and Davis. Davis’ speed and the strength of Lightner, Hisek and Schroeder made this unit a strength for the Bucks. Senior Jase Likness also played extremely well in the final two games of the year after returning from nagging injuries – his health earlier in the season could have proved beneficial to reduce some of the wear and tear that the others faced as the season wore on.
At DB, the Bucks saw Hejna, a junior, excel while leading the team in interceptions. Seniors Sam Wendte and and Kolby LaCroix also played major roles in shutting down the opposition’s passing games. The DB’s did struggle against Washington and Brandon Valley but in their defense so did every other team in the state.
That brings us to special teams, a most interesting aspect of the team for the Bucks. Yankton started the year with junior Lane Sawatzke handling kicking duties and Hunhoff as its punter. A broken leg suffered in week five to Sawatzke handed kicking duties off to sophomore Brady Hale. Hale also assumed punting detail after Hunhoff injured his knee. Although he struggled against Brookings in his first game as kicker (Sawatzke was injured on the opening kickoff of that game), Hale soon settled down and showed off the talent that made him a National Punt, Pass & Kick champion a year ago. He routinely put up booming punts and kickoffs and highlighted his season with a 51-yard field goal as time expired in the first half against the Knights in the semifinal game.
Looking ahead to 2013….
Before making predictions for next season it is important to note that the landscape of 11-man football will look much different in 2013. The new class of 11AAA will be added at the top, meaning that the Sioux Falls and Rapid City public schools will be in their own division along with some combination of O’Gorman, Brandon Valley, Aberdeen Central and Watertown depending on who chooses to move up/down in the coming months.
Regardless, Yankton will definitely find themselves as a favorite to win the Class 11AA title next season, even if O’Gorman and Brandon Valley stay in the lower division. The Lynx will graduate the balance of their offense – notably QB Chase Marso and WR Matt Vandenberg – while O’Gorman will also lose star RB/LB Nic Steffl to graduation among others.
I predict that O’Gorman will move up, Brandon Valley will chose to stay up and Watertown will drop down to 11AA. No matter what, the Bucks return enough talent, especially at skill positions, that they should get considerable 11AA-favorite hype next fall. Talk is cheap however and the Bucks must have a strong offseason by their core group of returners to back up pre-season predictions.
The first questions lingering for next season will be who is going to be the next quarterback after Rucker’s graduation: Brady Hale or Mason Strahl. Both will be juniors in 2013 and both saw about equal time in relief for Rucker at the end of the not-so-close games this season.
Hale appears to be caught in another position battle, that for kicker with senior-to-be Lane Sawatzke. Sawatzke started this season as the team’s kicker and routinely booted the ball for touchbacks and did a nice job on extra points and field goals through the first four weeks before he suffered his broken leg.
Between Hale and Strahl, whoever does not get starting QB duties should be able to get plenty of playing time at DB and possibly at WR as well. If Hale is starting at either QB or another position, he should handle punting duties (a great weapon on fakes) while Sawatzke can handle the kickoffs and field goals with Hale as holder.
The ground game should be a definite strength for the Bucks in 2013 as long as they can piece together an offensive line. Jordan Lightner and Levi Davis each showed enormous amounts of potential and talent as sophomores – something easier said than done in Class 11AA – and give the Yankton faithful a pair of reasons to be extremely optimistic for the next two seasons. Add current sophomore Parker Kuchta to the mix and the Bucks have a trio of backs that could make any offensive play-caller salivate with anticipation.
J.J. Hejna and Tanner Termansen should provide either Hale or Strahl two excellent big senior targets next year at WR, and will be joined by juniors-to-be Charlie Stephenson (WR), Matt Fitzgerald (WR) and Evan Greenway (TE) to lead the receiving core.
Perhaps the biggest key looking ahead will be to build enough depth that the Bucks are able to play more of their starters one-way without losing any talent on the field. That should decrease injuries – something that plagued the Bucks all season long, especially at RB – and keep all of the starters feeling fresh and energized well into the fourth-quarter of close contests.
Much will hinge on how hard the returning Yankton players work this off-season into the summer. The loss to O’Gorman in a very winnable game should leave enough of a bitter taste in their mouthes to provide plenty of motivation going forward. If Hale or Strahl step into the starting QB role and the Bucks can find enough pieces to replace at least the majority of Soulek’s production on the offensive and defensive lines, I would look for the Bucks to make their first DakotaDome appearance since 2005 next season and possibly grab their first state title in 11 years come next November.
My EARLY 2013 ESD Power Poll (2012 overall record)
1) Yankton (7-4)
2) Brandon Valley (11-0) *Will play Washington for 11AA title on Saturday but loses a large chunk of their starting roster to graduation*
3) Brookings (5-6)
4) Pierre (7-4)
5) Aberdeen Central (2-8)
6) Watertown (2-8)
7) Mitchell (1-8)
8) Huron (2-7)
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-All photo credits to James Cimburek/Yankton P&D