Forget what you knew about the 4A Southern Idaho Conference.
Idaho’s classification changes reshuffled the conference in the offseason. Gone is reigning league champ Skyview to 5A, and Mountain Home left for the Twin Falls-based District 4. Replacing them are former league members Columbia, Kuna and Nampa after brief stints at the 5A level.
The upheaval creates a wide-open race, according to the league’s coaches. Perennial power Bishop Kelly finished atop the preseason poll, but four other teams also received first-place votes, proving the league is anyone’s to win.
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BISHOP KELLY KNIGHTS
Last season: 8-3, 5-2 4A SIC
Playoffs: Lost to Skyline 40-14 in quarterfinals
Coach: Tim Brennan, 23rd season
Career record: 198-70
Base offense (coordinator): I-formation (Chris Martineau)
Base defense (coordinator): 4-4 (George Gamber)
Graduation hit the Knights hard, robbing them of seven first-team all-conference selections and seven on the second team. But that’s nothing new for Bishop Kelly.
The perennial power can turn to 27 seniors, the most in Brennan’s 23 seasons. He said the toughest challenge is assembling those pieces into the right spots.
“There are several positions where it’s a tough competition, and we probably won’t know who that starter is until game week, or even until after Game 1, which is nice,” Brennan said.
Quarterback tops that list. Senior Brady King and junior Beau Nelson are battling to take the season-opening snap. But Brennan cautioned both will have a role, possibly using the backup in special packages.
Bishop Kelly’s power-run game will rely on tailbacks Anthony Rizzo and Ian Arellano with fullback Thomas Rizzo clearing the way. Rizzo is a rugged, between-the-tackles runner, while Arellano has the moves and speed to create big plays.
But as always, the Knights hang their hat on the league’s top returning defense (16.3 ppg). Four long, strong and athletic defensive ends — Luke McLaughlin (6-1, 210), Adam Nichols (6-5, 210), Jackson Lightner (6-5, 220) and Cam Morrison (6-4, 210) — give Brennan a load of options to pressure opposing quarterbacks. He said some might even see time at defensive tackle to really ratchet up the pressure.
McLaughlin and Nichols both had five sacks last season, tied for second in the league.
Last season: 8-4, 6-1 4A SIC
Playoffs: Lost to Skyline 21-13 in semifinals
Coach: Bill Brock, 19th season
Career record: 212-104
Base offense (coordinator): Air raid (Brock)
Base defense (coordinator): 3-4 (Rob Kiser)
The Vikings took the plunge last season, shifting from a double-wing offense to the air raid. It paid off with a first-team all-conference quarterback, Darin Post, who threw for 3,154 yards and 35 TDs. But now Middleton needs to find his replacement.
Junior Dallas Hagler and sophomore Cash Cowdrey are battling for the keys to the offense in camp. Brock said both are capable of stepping in but need to adjust as first-year varsity players to a faster game.
Neither should have to worry about their blindside with junior left tackle Gaard Memmelaar returning. The 6-5, 290-pound Washington commit didn’t allow a sack in more than 300 dropbacks last season, and he is one of the state’s most intimidating presences.
Graduation robbed Middleton of first-team All-Idaho receiver Hayden Smith and the Vikings’ top three receivers from last season. But even with the big-name losses, Middleton returns five starters on offense, six on defense and plenty of players with varsity experience.
“We’ve got a lot of good kids,” Brock said. “I don’t know if anybody has heard of them yet, but these kids just need an opportunity to play. Once they do, they’ll make some plays.”
Last season: 3-6, 1-4 5A SIC Pod B
Playoffs: Missed playoffs
Coach: Sherm Blaser, second season
Career record: 19-25
Base offense (coordinator): Spread (Blaser)
Base defense (coordinator): 3-3-5 (Zach Randolph)
The Kaveman drop down to the 4A level needing to replace 10 offensive starters, including the 5A SIC’s co-offensive player of the year, Caden Cobb. But Kuna still figures to light up the scoreboard.
Blaser said the Kavemen will remain a potent running team with Brian McDaniel and Dalton Bell teaming up to carry the load. McDaniel is the between-the-tackles grinder, while Bell has the explosive speed to take any carry to the house.
But the big key remains shoring up a defense that gave up a 5A SIC-high 41.6 points per game. Kuna will switch from a 4-2-5 scheme to a 3-3-5 to keep opponents at bay. Blaser said that scheme better suits the school’s bounty of linebacker types.
“We don’t have a lot of 6-2, 280-pound kids in our school,” Blaser said. “But we’ve got a bunch of 6-foot, 180-pound kids that can run. We said, ‘Well, let’s quit fighting it and put more of those kids on the field.’”
Linebacker Hayden Brandon tops a group of four returning defensive starters after leading the team in tackles (6.6 per game) and earning a spot on the 5A SIC all-conference second team.
Last season: 5-4, 3-4 4A SIC
Playoffs: Missed playoffs
Coach: Layne Coffin, 12th season
Career record: 91-74
Base offense (coordinator): Spread (Coffin)
Base defense (coordinator): 3-4 (Bob Larison)
The Falcons began a youth movement two years ago and started seven sophomores last season. But after falling a game short of the playoffs each of the past two years, Vallivue is poised to break through with eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense.
Junior quarterback Lan Larison headlines the group. The three-year starter has transformed the Falcons from a ground-and-pound offense into a threat on the ground and in the air. He added starting safety duties last season and can change the game in the blink of an eye.
Vallivue needs to find a replacement for Nick Fox, a first-team All-Idaho safety and second-team running back. Junior Carson Childs is the top candidate. The linebacker racked up 10.6 tackles per game, third in the conference, and ran for 355 yards at 6.7 yards per carry as the Falcons’ No. 2 running back last season.
Coffin said players like Childs, Larison and the rest of his returning talent should all take a step forward this fall.
“(Our) size, speed and experience should help in game-time adjustments,” Coffin said. “Younger players struggle with in-game adjustment. Experience matters.”
Last season: 4-5, 2-3 5A SIC Pod A
Playoffs: Missed playoffs
Coach: Jon Helmandollar, first season
Career record: 30-37
Base offense (coordinator): Pistol spread (Helmandollar)
Base defense (coordinator): 3-5-3 (Mark Haggard)
Columbia turned the corner in its final season in 5A, winning the third-most games in program history and controlling its own playoff fate heading into the final week of the season. The program underwent some offseason changes with Helmandollar taking over. But he believes the Wildcats are ready to compete in 4A right away.
“We’re moving in the right direction with everything,” Helmandollar said. “There were some tough years in there, but coach (Rich) Davis did a good job getting things back to respectable. We can do some great things at this school.”
Expect Columbia to lean on senior running back Allamar Alexander early and often. He led the 5A SIC with 230 carries last season, and he could lead the 4A SIC this season. The Wildcats will rely on him and three returning offensive linemen to set the tone for the season.
But if defenses sell out to slow Alexander, Helmandollar said that should open up a growing play-action passing game led by dual-threat QB Austin Collett and wide receiver Jeremiah Brent, both juniors.
Last season: 2-7, 1-4 5A SIC Pod A
Playoffs: Missed playoffs
Coach: Dan Holtry, third season
Career record: 2-16
Base offense (coordinator): Spread (Danl Richards)
Base defense (coordinator): 4-2-5 (Ralph Angstman)
With nine returning starters on both sides of the ball, Nampa moves down from the 5A level ready to compete right away after six straight losing seasons.
The Bulldogs are loaded at the skill positions with senior quarterback Braden Minor, senior running back Brian Carrillo and junior receiver Donavon Estrada leading the attack. All three can break a play at a moment’s notice, have loads of experience under their belt and turned heads this summer when the Bulldogs finished second at the Potato Bowl 7-on-7 tournament.
The offensive line will also benefit from another season together with four returning starters. And a defense that gave up 41 points a game ought to improve with so much talent back.
“We expect to win,” Holtry said. “We feel like we could make the playoffs. We feel like we can be a lot more competitive than we have been in the past.”
Last season: 6-4, 4-3 4A SIC
Playoffs: Lost to Century 26-21 in first round
Coach: Rich Hargitt, first season
Career record: 12-25
Base offense (coordinator): Spread (Hargitt)
Base defense (coordinator): 3-4 (Chris Roper)
With a loaded senior class graduated and a new coach, the Huskies hit the reset button with just three returning offensive starters and none on defense.
Hargitt brings a new offensive scheme with him, morphing Emmett from a grind-it-out, I-formation team into a spread, run-pass option offense. The triggerman is senior quarterback Dylan Bemis, and Hargitt said after a lifetime of handing it off and running play action, he’s adapted well to a system that relies on him and his reads.
Bemis can turn to 6-4 senior receiver Brett Kern, the Huskies’ second-leading receiver last season, as an outlet. Caden Adams and Monte Zufelt, a back-to-back wrestling state champ, will also be threats catching the ball, and senior Trayton Lenz takes over as the workhorse running back.
“There’s a lot of unknown commodities,” Hargitt said. “And then you turn around to the defense, and three out of the four starting linebackers are sophomores. We’ll have a lot of fresh, young guys, hungry guys. We’re going to make young-guy mistakes. The questions is how big are they and can we overcome them?
“We’ll be different team Week 9 than we are Week 1, that’s for sure.”
Last season: 3-6, 2-5 4A SIC
Playoffs: Missed playoffs
Coach: Tom DeWitz, third season
Career record: 4-14
Base offense (coordinator): Two-back spread (Cris Mahavong)
Base defense (coordinator): 4-2-5 (Ty Schmidt/Ryan Beason)
After winning one game its first year and three the second, the Warhawks enter the third season in program history looking to take the next step.
Ridgevue will rely on a running game powered by seniors Michael Sondermann and Trevor Bourne. Sondermann finished fifth in the league last season with 743 rushing yards.
Austin Forrest and junior Issas Albor are battling to start at quarterback. Forrest ranked second on the team in tackles as a sophomore before an injury cut short his junior campaign. He’ll shine on both sides of the ball. The only question remains where on offense — under center or at wide receiver.
DeWitz is most excited about the strides his defense has made after allowing 30.7 points per game a year ago. The Warhawks only have three starters back, but Forrest returns to the secondary, Brock Childers (6-2, 200) leads the linebacking corps and junior lineman Connor Murphy (6-4, 205) topped the league with six sacks last season. Murphy picked up an offer from Idaho State this summer.
“We are still a developing program and we are a year more advanced in that respect,” DeWitz said. “… We are more athletic than we have ever been.”
Last season: 1-8, 1-6 4A SIC
Playoffs: Missed playoffs
Coach: Zac Farnam, second season
Career record: 20-36
Base offense (coordinator): Spread (Farnam)
Base defense (coordinator): 4-3 (Farnam)
Farnam was skeptical when incoming Mexican exchange student Andres Bagne contacted him via Facebook Messenger this summer. The junior played quarterback for a Mexico City club team and showcased an impressive arm on film, so Farnam sent him the Cougars’ playbook, not expecting much.
But when Bagne arrived in Idaho the day of the Potato Bowl 7-on-7 tournament, he already had the playbook down and was ready to take over.
“He knew all the routes, all the concepts, the exact way we talk about formations and cadences,” Farnam said. “He’s a super smart kid.”
Bagne’s arrival allows Caldwell to move two-year starting quarterback Chase Burfeind back to his natural position at wide receiver. Caldwell finished last in the 4A SIC in points (12.0 ppg) a year ago as teams stacked the box against Burfeind without any downfield threats.
Now Burfeind can take on the top defenders himself. Add in threats like junior receiver Matias Pizano and senior tight end Ryan Barton, and the Cougars are eying their first winning season since 2005.