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updated: 8/23/2012 9:23 PM

Big Northern East still goes through Richmond

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When is a question more like an answer?

When the question pertains to Richmond-Burton's ability to reload and still challenge for the Big Northern Conference's East Division title.

Entering last season it seemed as though the Rockets' run of back-to-back division titles was in jeopardy. They opened the campaign with new players at 17 of 22 positions following an 11-1 finish in 2010. They were vulnerable, right?

Yeah, right.

Not only did R-B run the table in the BNC East (5-0), it advanced all the way to the Class 4A state championship game before losing to Rochester, 42-39. Coach Patrick Elder's team finished 12-2.

Graduation has once again sapped the Rockets of veterans. Elder and staff must find replacements at 19 positions this time. That makes the three-time defending champs -- who enter the 2012 season on a 19-game BNC East winning streak dating back to Week 5 of the 2009 season -- really vulnerable, right?

League coaches know better than to take the bait.

"They thought they were down a little bit last year, but they still won it," said Burlington Central coach Rich Crabel, whose team lost a 9-7 thriller to R-B last season. "We don't know their skill set yet, but we think they'll have another hard nosed group. They have such a rich tradition there, and coach Elder does a nice job with them."

Said veteran Harvard coach Tim Haak: "No question, Richmond is the team at the top until someone beats them and takes it away. It should be Richmond-Burton then Burlington Central on paper, but you don't play games on paper."

Despite its losses, R-B does return proven contributors at some key spots. Quarterback Matt Malecki (6-1, 195) ran for 500 yards and threw for 8 touchdowns last year. Running back Adam Kinsella (6-1, 190) rushed for 885 yards and 8 touchdowns. He'll also play linebacker.

Senior Ryne Blanton (6-1, 195) is the team's most experienced lineman. He'll play guard on offense, end on defense. Other than returning defensive back Chris Vlasak (5-11, 160) the defense is all new.

One of the program's smallest senior classes in several years translates to five juniors starting on either side of the ball. Still, the Rockets intend to vie for the title.

"Our No. 1 goal is to contend for the conference championship every year," said Elder, who enters his sixth season at R-B. "We've been fortunate to win some and we've been in the hunt every year for the last five years. That's our objective: to win the league."

Elder is cautiously optimistic, however, he does not consider his team the favorite since so many untested players will start for the first time at the varsity level.

"I would have to argue that both Burlington Central and Harvard are really the favorites to win the league," Elder said. Burlington Central (7-3, 4-1) finished second in the division last year. Harvard (7-3, 3-2) was third. Both qualified for the playoffs but lost in the first round.

"They've both got a lot of kids back and there's good tradition at both programs," Elder continued. "Marengo and North Boone are both poised to make a leap in our league and qualify for the playoffs. And everyone expects Genoa-Kingston to be a little better.

"As for us, I think we'll be a different team by Week 8 and Week 9 than we are in Week 1."

Burlington Central leading rusher Joel Bouagnon (1,449 yards, 14 TD) and three other players expected to contribute transferred, but the Rockets still have the makings of a productive offense.

Third-year quarterback Ryan Ritchie (6-0, 185) is the sparkplug. As a junior he completed 82 of 158 attempts (52 percent) for 1,117 yards and 17 touchdowns. He threw only 4 interceptions.

Ritchie has weapons at his disposal, most notably, speedy wide receiver Joe Breeden (5-8, 145), who will also play cornerback. Senior receiver Tyler Majewski (6-0, 175) will also be targeted frequently.

Crabel believes his team can still run the ball behind an offensive line anchored by Robbie Frederickson (6-2, 205). Whether Central can overtake R-B to win its first league title since 2006 remains to be seen.

"We still expect to win every game," Crabel said. "That's not boasting or taking anybody lightly. That's just our expectation. That's the kids' goal. We know as coaches that we have work to do. We just have to go out there and be successful. There's no other way to look at it."

Harvard lost some key offensive contributors but still returns experienced leadership. Third-year starter Travis Heck will play center and linebacker, and senior Dakota Trebes returns at guard and defensive end. Junior Justin Nolen started as a sophomore. He'll perform double duty at wide receiver and free safety.

Harvard seeks its first BNC East title since 2007.

"We have the same goals we always have: to compete for the conference and make the playoffs," Haak said. "I don't see any reason to change those goals even though we had some good players graduate."

Marengo has gained respect under sixth-year coach Matt Lynch, who last season guided the program to a 4-5 season overall and a fourth-place finish in the BNC East (2-3). Marengo won only 5 games combined between 2004-2010.

The Indians will compete for their first playoff berth since 2004 with seven returning players on offense, six on defense. A key figure will be senior John Lesiak (6-1, 215), a tough, powerful ball carrier. Junior tight end Dustin Rondorf (6-4, 215) has college potential, Lynch said. Three senior offensive linemen also return: Luke Keenum, Jeff Werner and Ryan Bough.

The defense is led by returning linemen Tommy Graczyk (6-1, 195) and active nose guard Luis Correa.

"We're looking to improve each year," Lynch said. "Last year we took some steps and right now we're just looking to get better.

"It's a tough league. Of course, Richmond-Burton has been at the top and they've been tough. Burlington Central and Harvard are traditionally good, tough football programs. The league just keeps getting better and more competitive."

North Boone seeks its first playoff berth since joining the Big Northern Conference in 2006. The Vikings last made the playoffs in Class 3A in 2005, their final season in the Four Rivers Conference.

North Boone is led by third-year senior quarterback Austin Baden, an all-BNC East selection who has thrown for 3,000 yards in two seasons. By design, Baden is also the team's leading rusher in the spread offense.

He'll throw to senior Zach Horton and junior Jon Lilly, who were second and third on the team in receptions, respectively, a year ago. A.J. Briggs will play key roles at running back and outside linebacker.

North Boone is deep at the wide receiver position. Though the team lacks a true speed burner, ala graduated all-conference receiver Dylan Corson (49 rec., 870 yards), eighth-year coach Aaron Sullivan said "we have five or six good receivers so Austin can spread the ball around. We feel good about throwing to any of those guys."

The challenge for the Vikings will be on both sides of the line, where nagging injuries have already caused a problem. The offensive line has practiced together rarely since two-a-days began.

"I see us finishing in the middle of the pack with a chance to get 5 or 6 wins if we can stay healthy," Sullivan said. "I think Richmond-Burton is the team to beat again until someone knocks them off. Burlington will be very good, Harvard is always good and Marengo has gotten better and better. We'll be competitive."

Genoa-Kingston finished 1-8, 0-5 in its first year in the East Division. The Cogs were outscored 332-80 but return several experienced seniors.

The East Division league grows to seven teams this fall with the addition of Class 2A Rockford Christian. Coach Glynn Jones' Royal Lions finished 5-4 overall last season in nine Northeast Athletic Conference games.

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