The last time Norfolk Catholic lost a football game was in the first round of last year’s Class C-1 playoffs to Aquinas, the team the top-ranked Knights will play on the road in the quarterfinals Friday night.
Funny thing is, the playoffs just continued right into the 2017 season for the 10-0 Knights, who own wins over seven playoff teams (Bishop Neumann twice). Five of the teams (No. 3 Wahoo, No. 6 West Point-Beemer, No. 8 Wayne, No. 9 Boone Central/Newman Grove and Pierce) are in the quarterfinals.
“In all the years I’ve been coaching, I don’t think we’ve ever had a regular-season schedule this difficult,” said Norfolk Catholic coach Jeff Bellar, the state career leader in coaching victories with 346 after moving into the top spot with a 35-0 win at Wayne on Oct. 13.
“You don’t realize how tough the schedule is until it’s over. We never had a week where we could breathe easy and relax. We’ve had a lot of hard-fought battles that hopefully have made us better.”
Bellar expects another one Friday night. The Knights and the fifth-ranked Monarchs (8-1) are two of the winningest programs in the state in the last 10 years with football trophy cases full of hardware. Norfolk Catholic has won nine state championships, including three straight C-1 crowns in 2010, ’11 and ’12, and a C-1 state runner-up finish in 2015.
Aquinas has eight state titles, seven under coach Ron Mimick. The Monarchs were in the C-2 state final five straight years with championships in 2011, ’12, ’14 and ’15, and a runner-up trophy in 2013. Mimick has 291 career victories.
Norfolk Catholic junior all-state running back Dylan Kautz remembers the 35-27 setback to Aquinas well. And many of the Monarchs who played in that game, including all-state defensive lineman Kyle Ruth, will be on the field Friday night; they returned nine starters on both offense and defense from 2016.
“They were really good and really physical,” Kautz said. “They beat us at the point of the attack. We’ve gotten a lot better since last year and hopefully we can show that Friday night.”
Bellar certainly thinks Kautz fits into that mold. Kautz, the reigning 100- and 200-meter state champion in track, has learned to mix in a strong inside running game with his take-it-to-the-house speed. He has 1,895 yards and 18 touchdowns this season after going for 169 yards on 36 carries in a 20-7 win over Neumann in the first round last Friday.
“Dylan’s gotten bigger and stronger, and that’s made him better running between the tackles,” Bellar said. “He’s more versatile, and now he has confidence that he can go out and make things happen whether he’s running inside or outside.”
Kautz has taken an unofficial visit to Nebraska for both football and track, and is still undecided which sport to pursue in college. He tries to model his running style on a current Husker, freshman Jaylin Bradley, who led Bellevue West to the Class A state title last season.
“He’s not very big, but he’s really good at making speed cuts and he’s still a powerful runner,” Kautz said. “Since my freshman year, I’ve really worked on becoming a more powerful runner and making more speed cuts instead of trying to outrun people to the outside with just speed.”
Kautz has benefited from Illinois junior transfer Evan Smith taking some relief off him in the running game, as well as a dominating offensive line led by 6-4, 270-pound junior all-stater Ethan Piper and two other juniors — Joe Teten (6-4, 240) and Joey Otero (5-10, 210). Piper is getting recruiting interest from both Nebraska and Iowa.
Smith, who has battled a shoulder injury since midseason, has 549 yards and seven TDs.
“It’s been awesome to have another running back to push me in practice and give teams someone else to focus on defensively,” Kautz said. “It’s fun getting the ball behind that huge offensive line. They’ve done a great job all year creating holes and pushing people back.”