With two new head coaches in the league and only one returning first-team all-conference selection, the Great Northern Conference could be a wide open affair this fall.
Regardless, three teams that have been near the top of the conference over the last few seasons are expected to contend for another football title.
Merrill has been chosen by a panel of area sportswriters to win the championship in the second annual Great Northern Conference media poll, released Tuesday.
The Bluejays were tabbed to win the conference last year by the panel and nearly made good on that prediction, taking second in the conference. A 15-12 loss to eventual conference champ Medford in Week 4 kept the Bluejays from the crown.
Medford finished second in the balloting, followed by Mosinee, Antigo, Lakeland, Rhinelander and Ashland.
The seven-person voting panel included sports reporters from the Antigo Daily Journal, Ashland Daily Press, The Lakeland Times, Merrill Courier, Northwoods River News (Rhinelander), Star News (Medford) and WJFW-TV.
The voters were split on their conference favorite. Merrill received four out of a possible seven first-place votes and 43 points overall. Medford was a close second with 41 points and one first-place vote. Mosinee and Antigo received the remaining two first-place votes.
Merrill has the lone returning first-team member of last year’s All-Great Northern Conference football team, offensive lineman Seth Collins.
It’s a year of transition in the conference, as only 14 players from last-year’s all-conference team return, most of whom received honorable mention. Merrill has the most returning all-conference players with Collins and second-team honorees Jake Anderson (WR), Mason Reinhardt (RB), Dustin Dengel (DL) and Chaz Mootz (DB).
Medford lost the majority of its starting lineup. The same holds true for Mosinee and Antigo, but those traditional powers are expected to reload.
Quarterback will be an especially inexperienced position in the conference this year with only two returning starters – Lakeland’s Nick Peterson and Rhinelander’s Brandon Reinthaler – both of whom inherited their team’s starting job midway through last season.
The two teams that finished at the bottom of the conference last season have new head coaches and new offensive philosophies going into the 2014 campaign. Former Two Rivers’ assistant Chris Ferge replaced Jim Moore at Rhinelander and has brought a spread offense with him. Bill Blake takes the reins from Josh Miller in Ashland and will replace the wishbone with the power-I.
The slate of conference games will begin in Week 3 and conference favorites could begin to emerge by mid-September. Mosinee will travel to Medford Sept. 5 in a Week 3 matchup. Week 4 features a pair of intriguing matchups with Antigo at Mosinee and Medford at Merrill.
As a conference, the GNC is looking for a better showing in the postseason in 2014. The four teams that qualified for the tournament last year — Medford, Merrill, Mosinee and Antigo — all bowed out in Level 1.
See the Fall Sports Preview, to be inserted in the Friday, Aug. 29
edition of The Lakeland Times,
for preview of each GNC football team, as well as previews for all
Lakeland and Rhinelander fall sports teams.