SJ-O is bulking back up in more ways than one for the 2019 season.
ARCOLA — The old saying goes that familiarity breeds contempt.But familiarity also can forge strong bonds.Ask members of the Arcola football program, which graduated just a fifth of its 45-man roster from 2018.
New starters, a new coach and a new paint job has kept Salt Fork's offseason busy, but that's not stifling the Storms' expectations for the 2019 football season.
How does Fisher football — ranked No. 7 by The News-Gazette in its preseason Top 10 poll before the 2019 season starts — plan to follow up its breakthrough season from a year ago?
BISMARCK — Watching and listening to Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin football’s morning workout last Tuesday, one would think the Blue Devils are on the cusp of their Week 1 matchup with Iroquois West.
It bodes well for coach Mark Dodd’s boys, then, that they were running a full slate of plays as part of a July 2 session — 59 days before they visit Gilman.
And executing them with competence and comfort in stifling 90-degree heat, drawing plenty of praise from Dodd and his assistants.
“Because we have everybody coming back, we don’t have to teach the Wing-T over and over and over again, like we had to do for seven weeks last year,” Dodd said. “So we can do a little bit more fun stuff, spread the field out a little bit and use some of the weapons we have.”
That experience, along with a skilled running back and savvy quarterback, is why BHRA is ranked at No. 6 in The News-Gazette’s preseason Top 10.
Dodd, about to enter his 13th season in charge of the Blue Devils, noted just how different last week’s practice was compared to last year, when lineman Zane Reining was BHRA’s lone returning senior starter during summer training.
“We have 11 seniors, and I think we’re going to have probably 10 of them starting on one side of the ball — and some of them starting on both sides,” Dodd said. “It’s going to be like night and day.”
Those athletes were pretty talented last year, too, as they compiled a 9-2 record that carried them to the second round of the Class 2A playoffs.
Among those pacing the lineup are rising senior Caleb Lahey, the area’s leading rusher last season with 1,872 yards and 27 touchdowns among 247 carries.
“We’ve been doing this our whole high school career,” Lahey said. “This is our last go-round, so we all got to stick together and hopefully play Week 14 (at state).”
Guys like Lahey and fellow rising seniors Avery McConkey and Jacob Akins know just how much their final stint with BHRA matters.
Not only because they won’t be Blue Devils afterward, but also because they didn’t have the roster numbers to field a freshman team in 2016.
“They never had really gotten to all play together,” Dodd said. “Now I’m really excited for them because they’re a really tight-knit group.”
McConkey will be its offensive general after accepting starting quarterback duties as a junior. He accumulated 13 all-purpose touchdowns while tossing just one interception last season.
“I have much more confidence in myself,” McConkey said. “Going out there last year, it was my first time running the show. ... This year I know that I can do that.”
Guys like Akins (990 rushing yards last season) and rising junior Weston Strawser (514 ground yards) should combine with Lahey to form a potent backfield as well.
“Our experience last year allows us to do more complex types of stuff this year,” Akins said. “As in more different coverages and more different types of offense that we can run.”
The BHRA defense may have some room to grow after it permitted 21 or more points in six games last season, including each of its last five.
Rising junior Eric Watson, a defensive end, isn’t concerned about that past statistic.
“It was a learning experience,” he said. “I feel like we’re just a good, all-around team. We have athletes everywhere.”
They’ll be required in the always-physical Vermilion Valley Conference, of which the Blue Devils are reigning co-champions.
As well as for any other missions BHRA sets for itself.
What might some of those be?
“What do you think we’re going to say?” Lahey asked before adding, “I’m going to get me a ring.”
Monday morning quarterback
Avery McConkey’s numbers in his first year under center weren’t mind-blowing — 702 passing yards and two throwing touchdowns, as well as 277 rushing yards and 11 ground scores. But he was a steady presence as a junior, and he’s impressed coach Mark Dodd this summer. “He’d be a great assistant coach on my staff right now,” Dodd said. “He studies it. He practices it.”
Dodd has been at the Blue Devils’ helm since 2007, and the former Danville coach has led his last 10 BHRA squads have made a postseason appearance in either Class 1A or 2A. The previous three results, however, all were second-round exits. “It’s just one of those things where I think everybody is almost bored with it now,” Dodd said. “As coaches, we’re not. ... We think it’s awesome if we get a playoff win.”
We’re talking playoffs
Their first playoff win happened ... in 1991, when Bismarck-Henning defeated Marshall 6-3 in a Class 2A first-round game.
Their most recent playoff win was ... in 2018, when the Blue Devils defeated Hamilton West Hancock 66-30 in a Class 2A first-round game.
Their best-ever finish was ... a Class 1A quarterfinal appearance in 2014.
When you can see BHRA
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 30 at Iroquois West 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 vs. Momence 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 vs. Hoop. Area/A-P 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Georgetown-RF 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 at Westville 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 vs. Chicago Hope 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 at Oakwood 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 vs. Salt Fork 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Seneca 7 p.m.