After back-to-back trips to the playoffs for the Regents, including a Level 3 appearance in 2017, Madison West missed the playoffs last year by one game. A number of key returning players, and better numbers in the program, could get West back into playoff contention in 2019.
A 19-14 week one loss to Madison La Follette was, at the time, a 'playoff game of sorts,' said head coach Brad Murphy, as La Follette would defeat the same three teams West did and advance to the WIAA Division 1 playoffs.
Right from the start, West was down one of their key players. Ezra Thompson, a valuable do-everything contributor on the 2017 squad that won nine games, missed the season with a leg injury. That forced Murphy and the Regents to get creative at quarterback, which then affected other positions on both sides of the ball.
"It'll be nice this year to get everyone back to where we thought they'd be playing a year ago," said Murphy. "[Ezra] coming back will be big for us."
One thing the program has struggled with the past few years is numbers, which Murphy says is still an issue this year.
"We'll probably have 27 kids on varsity this year, which has been kind of the magic number for us the past few years," said Murphy. "But part of that is the numbers in the senior class. Next year, we'll have probably 35 players on varsity."
"We didn't even have a JV team last year, but we'll have a freshman and JV roster this season."
For the players that are coming back, it'll look a lot like small-school football since with only barely two dozen varsity players, each player will be counted upon to contribute at a high level both ways, and on special teams.
In addition to Thompson, who was honorable mention all-conference in 2016 as a slot receiver and defensive back and will play quarterback this year, the Regents bring back 2018's quarterback William Gutknecht as well. Gutknecht will play tight end and linebacker in 2019 after serving admirably on short notice at QB in 2018, with a combined 13 touchdowns passing and rushing last year.
Gutknecht is part of an incoming junior class that features five players with all-conference recognition, led by defensive back Matt McClain, who was second-team All-Big 8 last year after finishing second on the team in tackles. Also back is defensive lineman Sammy Smith, who missed two games but still finished fourth on the team in stops and second in tackles for a loss and sacks. In the middle of the defense, Nazier Jones, who also plays running back, returns after picking up all-conference honorable mention recognition in 2018 after forcing two fumbles and recovering one from his linebacker spot. Playmaking senior safety Zach Mercier, who has thus far evaded All-Big 8 selection but has been a big contributor across two varsity seasons, is also back.
Up front, Anders Hegg will help lead a group of lineman who are just entering their junior year, and in the class, five linemen have varsity playing experience. In the Regents offense, the lines don't have to feature players tipping the scales at 250-plus, as last year's starting line barely averaged 200 pounds across the board. Hegg earned honorable mention All-Big 8 recognition.
Virtually every position group brings back starting experience, with the possible exception of cornerback, the only spot other than offensive line to see two starters graduate. However, with the bulk of the offense and defense returning, as well as a senior quarterback who missed all of last year, the Regents should be in good shape heading into 2019.
With the Big 8 flipping home fields on the schedule this year, it's the same run for West as it was a year ago in the final setup of the closed-conference era in high school football. Home games against La Follette and East, two teams that seem to be on the uptick, begin the year before a tough pair of road games take the Regents to Middleton and Verona. A week 5 date with Madison Memorial in the Battle for Burt Hable's Clipboard will be broadcast by The Big 1070, before West enters a run of Beloit-Parker-Craig in a swing to push for the playoffs. The season wraps up with a game against Sun Prairie.
Here's our preview with Coach Brad Murphy:
Madison West Regents
Head Coach: Brad Murphy (4th Season), 17-14 Overall (2-2 Playoffs)
2018 Result: 3-6 (3-6), 7th in the Big 8 (missed playoffs)
Three-Year Record: 17-14 (2-2 Playoffs)
2018 All-Conference Honors: 0 First-Team, 3 Second-Team, 5 Honorable Mention (8 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 11 First-Team, 6 Second-Team, 15 Honorable Mention (32 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (6): QB/S Ezra Thompson (HM-WR ), Sr.; DL/OLSammy Smith (HM-DL ), Jr.; S Matt McClain (2T-DB), Jr.; TE/LB William Gutknecht (HM-QB), Jr.; LB/RB Nazier Jones (HM-RB/LB), Jr.; OG Anders Hegg (HM-OL), Jr.
Other Players To Watch: S/RB Zach Mercier, Sr.; RB/DL/P Dayne Armwald, Sr.; CB/RB Kollins Opoku-Appoh, Jr.; OT Aiden Hoffman, Jr.; OT/LB Hans Bryan, Jr.; DL Austin Jackson, So.
BIG Games: vs Madison La Follette, August 17; vs Madison East, August 24; at Madison Memorial, September 14 [🔊The Big 1070 Game of the Week]; vs Sun Prairie, October 12
2020 Conference: Big 8