Preview Section: Find a copy of the 16-page high school football preview near you
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Zach Decker spent the first few days of August relaxing in the Ozarks.
He took advantage of some free time after a busy summer and what should be an active fall on the football field.
“He's a pretty important weapon for us,” Beatrice coach Bob Sexton said.
Decker, a 6-foot, 190-pound senior, has been important in all three phases for Beatrice. Last year, he was the team's leading receiver with 22 catches and also had a team-best five interceptions in the secondary.
The area in which Decker has been most valuable is the kicking game. He was 2011's all-state kicker in Class B and also an effective punter — he averaged 38.3 yards per punt and had an 84-yarder against Crete.
“He's got great leg strength,” Sexton said. “We've had some good kickers over the years, but none have had the leg strength Zach does.”
Decker showed that strength when he made two field goals of at least 50 yards last season. He just missed to the right of the uprights on a 57-yard attempt.
Decker also kicked a game-winning field goal in the 2011 season opener against Ralston. With the score tied at 14, Decker nailed a 40-yarder with 20 seconds left.
“You can't over-think in those situations,” he said. “You just have to go out and make it happen.”
Decker hopes to better Beatrice's longest field goal, which is 54 yards. He has shown at camps around the Midwest that he has the leg strength for that record.
His kicking is drawing attention from college programs.
Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio and Kansas State have shown interest in Decker to kick, punt or do both. He attended summer camps at Nebraska, Kansas State and Iowa State while helping Beatrice's American Legion baseball team reach the Class B state tournament. He went to a kicking combine in Kansas City, where he was the MVP. He also participated in the Kohl's Scholarship Camp in Wisconsin and the Texas Showcase Camp in Dallas in April.
Kicking at camps is nothing new for Decker.
“My sophomore year, I went to a couple of camps and figured out a couple of things,” he said. “I thought it would be the way to go to college and get my college paid for.”
Decker doesn't expect to pick a college until this winter.
“When the season's over and if I have good numbers, that's usually when they offer,” he said. “It will probably be January and February, because kickers and punters are the very last ones (college coaches sign).”
In the meantime, Decker's focus will be on his senior season. Sexton expects to start him at quarterback.
Decker has played quarterback most of his life. He filled in for the team's injured quarterback as a sophomore when Beatrice reached the Class B state quarterfinals, then took a few snaps there last season. Because of the move to quarterback, Sexton wants to limit Decker's time on defense.
“I think he's going to be a heck of a quarterback for us,” Sexton said. “He's got a good, quick release. And he'll beat you with his feet as well. He's a really good athlete.”
Decker's final prep season also marks a new era at Beatrice — the Orangemen will be playing in a new stadium.
Beatrice had played downtown at Athletic Park — that field was dedicated in 1913. The new stadium is at the high school, with its first game there Aug. 24 against Elkhorn South.
“It was time to move on,” Sexton said. “The fact that we have FieldTurf, that's probably the biggest thing for the kids. It's going to be a beautiful setup when it's completely done.”
The Orangemen, who reached at least the state semifinals every year from 2005 to 2008, finished just 5-5 last season. Three losses were by a total of eight points. Throw in a rash of injuries and Sexton said it made for a “frustrating year.”
“I hope that gives us motivation. We have a lot of starters back,” said Sexton, who has five offensive and seven defensive starters returning. “We've had a good summer. We'll see how that carries through.”
Sexton said the Orangemen will have good experience in their defensive front seven. Among the returners on defense are senior Jordan Workman (6-2, 263) and junior Dakota Buss (5-11, 165).
“Our defense will be really good,” Decker said.
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Class B games worth seeing MATCHUP, DATE, LAST YEAR
Gretna at Omaha Skutt, Aug. 23, DNP
Televised game shows off Skutt's new field and two rated teams.
McCook at Aurora, Aug. 24, M 16-13, 2 OT
Visiting Bison have the edge in experience and skill players.
Elkhorn South at Beatrice, Aug. 24, DNP
First game at Beatrice's new stadium is a rating matchup.
Scottsbluff at McCook, Aug. 31, M 28-7
Bison are the best team on the Scottsbluff schedule.
Crete at Omaha Gross, Sept. 13, DNP
Cougars are one of three rated on the Crete non-district schedule.
Blair at Norris, Sept. 21, DNP
With these ground games, the clock may never stop.
Grand Island Northwest at Aurora, Oct. 5, A 21-14
Vikings say they are much improved. Best district test is against the Huskies.
Scottsbluff at Gering, Oct. 5, S 17-0
The Twin Cities' grudge game is never dull.
Elkhorn at Elkhorn South, Oct. 18, E 17-14
The 204th Street rivalry is just beginning.
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Returning Class B all-state players
James Kruger, Norris, RB, 6-1, 185, Sr.
Titans coach Jim Jacobsen: “This is the best RB I have been around.”
Zach Decker, Beatrice, QB-K, 6-1, 195, Sr.
Moves in as the starting quarterback for the Orangemen.
Matt Klein, Scottsbluff, DB, 6-1, 180, Sr.
Averaged 11 yards per carry last season.
Others to watch this year:
Jake Schlager, McCook, RB-OLB, 6-1, 192, Sr.
He's a beast and a tackling machine, Bison coach Jeff Gross said.
Chris Weber, Elkhorn, TE-LB, 6-3, 195, Sr.
Led the Class B state champion Antlers in tackles.
Conner Eberhardt, Grand Island NW, OT-LB, 6-3, 215, Sr.
Three-sport athlete is the Vikings team leader, his coach said.
Cal Griencewic, Elkhorn South, OT-DT, 6-5, 305, Sr.
Anchor of D-line “eats up double teams,” new coach Guy Rosenberg said.
Ryan McKeever, Omaha Skutt, IB-DB, 5-11, 185, Sr.
Coach Matt Turman said the SkyHawks' 2011 tackles leader also is the best I-back he's coached.
Zach Flott, Ralston, OL-DL, 6-4, 260, Jr.
Has Division I potential, Rams coach Tyler Zahn said.
Colton Steer, Crete, RB-LB, 6-2, 215, Sr.
“Very physical” linebacker will be a key piece to the Cardinals' reloading.
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District 1: Omaha Gross, Omaha Roncalli, Omaha Skutt, Ralston
District 2: Nebraska City, Platteview, Plattsmouth, Waverly
District 3: Elkhorn, Elkhorn Mount Michael, Elkhorn South, Gretna
District 4: Bennington, Blair, Schuyler, South Sioux City
District 5: Beatrice, Crete, Norris, Seward
District 6: Aurora, Columbus, Grand Island Northwest, York
District 7: Hastings, Holdrege, Lexington, McCook
District 8: Alliance, Gering, Scottsbluff, Sidney
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Key stat: .837
Winning percentage for Elkhorn coach Mark Wortman, who's two wins from 300 in his career. He led the Antlers to a 12-1 record and a Class B title last season.
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“Our program has not turned the corner yet, but we are moving the steering wheel in the right direction.” — Norris coach Jim Jacobsen, whose 2011 team went 5-5.