WISSPORTS.NET Great Northern Conference Preview

2016 Preview:
Predicted Order of Finish:

1) Merrill
2) Medford
3) Antigo
4) Mosinee
5) Lakeland
6) Ashland
7) Rhinelander

Players to Watch:

Conrad Bolz, RB, Medford:  Bolz was a First Team All-Conference choice last season after rushing for more than 1200 yards.

Jake Collinsworth, RB/LB, Merrill:  Collinsworth is a versatile two-way player, committing to Wisconsin as a preferred walk-on linebacker.

Jonathan Gruetzmacher, OL, Merrill:  After receiving several scholarship offers, the 6-8, 290 pound senior committed to South Dakota State.

Hunter Kirsch, TE/DL, Antigo:  Kirsch was a First Team All-Conference tight end and Second Team all-league defensive lineman.

Nevada Laabs, RB, Merrill:  Laabs was the top rusher for the Bluejays last season, earning Honorable Mention All-Conference recognition.

Brandon Rusch, RB, Ashland:  Rusch led the team in rushing, grabbing Honorable Mention all-league laurels.

Ben Tabor, DB, Merrill:  Tabor is one of just two returning First Team All-Conference defenders from a year ago.

Josh Thiede, RB, Medford:  Sharing time with Conrad Bolz, Thiede still managed to go for more than 800 yards with 11 touchdowns on the ground.

2016 Team Previews:

1) Merrill has been one of the more consistent programs in the relatively brief history of the Great Northern Conference, advancing to the playoffs each of the past eight seasons. That streak should continue in 2016, as Merrill welcomes back players responsible for seven All-Conference selections, including a couple of Division 1 prospects in offensive lineman Jonathan Gruetzmacher (committed to South Dakota State) and linebacker Jake Collinsworth (committed to Wisconsin as a preferred walk-on). Also back is leading rusher Nevada Laabs, with Collinsworth likely to play a big role in the running game once again after going for more than 400 yards last season. “We have a lot of experience returning from a year ago,” said head coach Dominic Sturm. “We had a lot of young players gain experience due to injuries. This year's team will be faster and deeper than the past few teams.”

2) Medford got back into the playoffs last year after a one-year hiatus, sharing the Great Northern Conference title. The Raiders advanced to Level 3 of the D3 playoffs, knocking off league rivals Merrill and Mosinee in the process. Medford featured one of the top offenses in the league last season, and while quarterback Ben Meier and the GNC's best receiver Mikel Delzer graduated, there's still a good amount of skill talent returning. Conrad Bolz and Josh Thiede form the best running back duo in the conference, going for more than 2000 combined yards last season. Second-leading receiver Garrett Strebig also returns, though the Raiders must replace four offensive linemen who received some form of All-Conference recognition last year. 

3) Antigo extended its playoff streak to eight last year, though the Red Robins went out in Level 1 to Mosinee. Coming off a shared Great Northern Conference title, the team has its work cut out for it, as players that accounted for eight of the ten First or Second Team All-Conference selections have graduated, including the league's co-Offensive Player of the Year Max Nowinsky. 

4) Mosinee continued its impressive streak by qualifying for the playoffs for a 14th straight year, and it proved to be the last season under longtime head coach Paul Nievinski, who retired in the off-season. Craig Martens, a two-way starter on the 2005 Mosinee team that took home a silver ball as state runners-up, was hired to replace him. He'll step into a bit of a tough situation, as the Indians lose a large and talented senior class, including players that accounted for 14 out of 15 All-Conference selections. Especially difficult to replace will be quarterback Landon Stepan, the league's co-Player of the Year who threw for more than 2000 yards last season and finished second on the team in rushing.

5) Lakeland hasn't made the playoffs since the 2009 season, and the T-Birds will be on their third coach in as many seasons as Dan Barutha takes over the helm this year. “We had strong summer commitment numbers to contact days and passing league, and the players are hungry leadership,” Barutha said. “We've had great senior leadership during the coaching transition and we'll be helped by employing similar offensive and defensive schemes from the previous year.” The team has 17 returning letterwinners, with six starters back on both sides of the ball.

6) Ashland is still looking for its first postseason appearance since joining the Great Northern Conference in 2011. The team was competitive against several playoff squads last season, though it still needs to find a way to beat some of the better competition in the league. 

7) Rhinelander has struggled to get things going, with just two playoff appearances in program history. The Hodags must replace quarterback Brandon Reinthaler, who also led the team in rushing, and top receiver Tim Palubicki off last year's team.


All photos courtesy of Tom Andreska, Technology Education Teacher, Yearbook Adviser, Merrill High School.

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