After making it all the way to the state championship game in 2017, the Sun Prairie Cardinals rallied from a week one loss to Madison Memorial to share the Big 8 title in 2018.
The opening loss to Memorial was an eye-opener for sure, but the Spartans then won seven of their final nine games, proving their mettle in the process. For Sun Prairie, it allowed some introspection and a chance to reset ahead of a 10-game winning streak.
With heavy graduation losses from their state runner-up squad, the 2018 Cardinals needed a little time to grow, but they grew up in a hurry. One of the biggest reasons for the sudden improvement was the development of first-year starting quarterback Richie Gilles.
Coach Brian Kaminski didn't mince words talking about the recent grad.
"[Richie] improved more than any other player I've ever coached," said Kaminski. Gilles set single-season passing records at Sun Prairie, racking up 2,456 yards in 12 games for the Cardinals in 2018.
Sun Prairie saw plenty of other talent leave the program; a total of 16 players who received some form of all-conference recognition, including nine first-teamers, graduated. In some programs, an exodus of playmakers like that would suggest a big drop-off, but Sun Prairie had to adjust to a similar experience ahead of last season as well.
"The guys here have bought in," said Kaminski, citing the participation in the weight room, classroom, and other sports.
Certainly, Sun Prairie has had a good run, winning the past three Big 8 titles. However, the gold trophy has eluded them in Kaminski's past 15 seasons at the helm, and that's the goal, as always, in 2019.
"Our seniors last year were a great group with leadership," said Kaminski, agreeing that the table has been set for the younger players to step into bigger roles in 2019.
Of the 22 starters in the postseason, only three are back on offense (four if you include Colin Schaefer, who was activated late in the season coming off of an injury). However, that group includes second-team all-conference running back Nathan Schauer, as well as the athletic Dominick Landphier and two other rotating starters. Defensively, the entire secondary returns intact, with two all-conference players (Landphier making the first-team) and a third who should figure into the discussion alongside Landphier and second-team all-conference cornerback Dom Backes, Jamel Stone.
A few other important pieces from last year outside of the all-conference list return as well, including nose tackle Terrance Briggs and edge rusher Jacob Hellenbrand, who also co-started at H-back on offense as a sophomore last year.
Kaminski says there's a number of players vying for quarterback. One name to watch to possibly emerge is Carson Fluno, who is also a key member of the state-runner-up Cardinals baseball team.
Schedule-wise, after the big opener against Madison Memorial in a match-up of last year's Big 8 co-champs (and possibly a decisive game in terms of who wins the title this year), Sun Prairie will head down the interstate for games at Beloit and Janesville Parker. After a home game against Janseville Craig, a big game at home against Verona looms on September 20.
Sun Prairie finishes with three of four games against Madison city schools, and in Week 8, they'll face Middleton in a big Homecoming showdown as the teams rematch from last year's Level 1 barn-burner in which Sun Prairie scored nine points in the fourth quarter to win by six.
Here's our preview with coach Brian Kaminski:
Sun Prairie Cardinals
Head Coach: Brian Kaminski (17th Season), 127-48 (16-15 Playoffs)
2018 Result: 10-2 (8-1), 🏆1st in the Big 8 (Lost in Level 3 of the Division 1 playoffs to Fond du Lac 33-7)
Three-Year Record: 31-5 (6-3 Playoffs)
2018 All-Conference Honors: 10 First-Team, 4 Second-Team, 5 Honorable Mention (19 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 28 First-Team, 17 Second-Team, 15 Honorable Mention (60 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (4): DB/WR/KR Dominick Landphier (1T-DB) (WSN-DB 🏈), Sr.; RB/LB Nathan Schauer (2T-RB) (WSN-RB 🏈), Sr.; DB/WR Dom Backes (2T-DB) (WSN-DB 🏈), Sr.; WR/DB Colin Schaefer (2T-WR ) (WSN-OL 🏈), Sr.
Other Players To Watch: QB/DB Carson Fluno, Sr.; DB/WR/KR Jamel Stone, Sr.; OL/DT Terrence Briggs (WSN-DL 🏈), Sr.; WR/DB David Wilson, Sr.; WR/DB Malik Touzani, Sr.; OL/DL Mason Smith, Sr.; OL/DL Evan Holman, Sr.; DL/OL Quinn Nierzwicki, Sr.; LB/RB Brendan Shannon, Sr.; DB/WR Dominick Stroede, Sr.; WR/DB Caleb Triebel, Sr.; OL/DL Zach Walters, Jr.; TE/FB/LB Peyton Jenkins, Jr.; RB/ER/LB Jacob Hellenbrand, Jr.; K/P Owen Konopacki, Jr.
BIG Games: vs Madison Memorial, August 23; vs Verona, September 20; at Madison La Follette, September 27; vs Middleton, October 11 (🔊 The Big 1070 Broadcast)
2020 Conference: Big 8