Evan Snider

DeKalb’s Evan Snider, right, shakes off a Columbia City defender during the first half of a game last season.

It feels good to be back!

Sorry my summer vacation took a little bit longer than expected. I had trouble getting out of some of muddy fields created during the wet spring. But this summer heat was enough to drive me into the cool air conditioning of the KPC Media Group offices, so I figured I’d catch up on all of the work I missed. And boy do I have an interesting question for you to ponder for the next few weeks before the football season gets underway.

How wide open is the Northeast 8 Conference?

East Noble might be the favorite to repeat after winning it outright in 2018. But the teams chasing them might not be far behind and there may be a couple of new teams right on their tail.

The Knights return a very talented quarterback in Bailey Parker and few weapons in Hayden Jones and Gage Ernsberger to hook up with this year along with the return of Leyth Al-Mohammedawi on the defensive line. Also, a few new players like Jacob VanGorder, Caden Conley and Rowan Zolman could have an impact right way.

But if it’s not East Noble, then it has to be either Leo or New Haven, right? That’s the way it’s been the last four years.

Since the NE8 Conference was formed in 2015, it has been the “Big 3” of East Noble, Leo and New Haven that have largely dominated the other five members every football season.

In the inaugural year of the conference, Bellmont was able to crack into the top and share the title with Leo and East Noble, but there has been no other challenger since.

In 2016, the Bulldogs finished with a perfect 6-0 record to claim the conference, and in the following year it was another three-way tie but this time it was among the three traditional powers.

Then last year, East Noble went 7-0 and Leo followed with a 5-2 record. But what happened behind them is what makes this upcoming season so intriguing. New Haven, Columbia City and DeKalb all finished 2018 at 4-3 in the conference. Could the Eagles and Barons take that next step and break up this pattern of dominance?

All of the “Big 3” lost key pieces due to graduation.

East Noble lost one of the most productive running backs in the area in Kaiden Harshberger and a stud defensive lineman in Spencer Pattee. The Lions saw linebacker Jayden Elwood and quarterback AJ Restivo graduate. And Bulldog receivers Kentrel Thomas and Nick Sexton left the program after productive senior seasons.

The Eagles and Barons have been slowly gaining ground on the top, nipping on their heels with a win and some closer finishes than in years past. It would be no surprise to see either of them finish in the top two of the standings when it’s all said and done this year.

So how close are they to taking down the “Big 3”?

The Eagles split with New Haven last season, beating them in the regular season before falling to them in the sectional opener. DeKalb was a two-point conversion away from upsetting East Noble in the first round of sectionals and lost to Leo and New Haven each by a touchdown. Those results are a lot better than what they have posted in previous years.

Both teams also return a boatload of talent.

First, the Barons return majority of their front seven on defense, which was the best in the conference in almost every statistical category last season.

Landon Miller and Tanner Jack both return in the backfield and offer different looks for DeKalb. Combined, the duo rushed for 1,228 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Plus, whoever lines up at quarterback, either senior Evan Eshbach or junior Corey Price, there will be a massive offensive line to protect them led by seniors Hoyt Stafford and Tylar Pomeroy, both of whom have opportunities to play at the collegiate level.

The Eagles have one of the best young quarterbacks in the area in sophomore Greg Bolt. As a freshman, he threw seven touchdowns and seven interceptions while splitting time under center with Max Bedwell. Bolt will have his top target back as well. Michael Sievers caught 34 balls for 451 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 342 yards and five more scores.

Columbia City also had a top-three defense in the conference in 2018. It was third in total defense, fourth in rush defense, second in pass defense and second in scoring defense. Seniors Tyler Lane and Tanner Martz were two of the top tacklers in the conference last season and both are back.

Both DeKalb and Columbia City seem like the perfect candidates to shake up the top of the conference.

Behind them are Norwell, Bellmont and Huntington North asking if they have a shot to do the same. The Braves made a sectional final last season, but introduce a new coach in Eric Davis. The Vikings hired Bob Prescott as their new coach. And the Knights of Ossian have slightly closed the gap the last couple of years.

Both Bellmont and Norwell return their starting quarterbacks in John Wilder and Eli Riley, respectively. Wilder lost his top targets, Aaron Lehrman and Noah Macklin, to graduation. However, Wilder racked up 2,501 total yards as a junior in 2018, and Riley accumulated 1,402 in his sophomore campaign.

Is this the year some team not named East Noble, Leo or New Haven wins the Northeast 8 Conference title? It seems as good a year as any.

Hannah Holstein is KPC Media Group’s sports prognosticating cow. She can be reached at hannahholstein@kpcmedia.com or on Twitter at WondercowKPC.

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