In 2017, the Nevada football team proved it could play with the big boys after turning in its first winning record as a Class 3A program in 25 years.
Nevada finished 5-4 overall and 3-4 in 3A District 6. Last year, Nevada was 3-6 overall and 2-5 in the district.
The winning mark was Nevada’s first as a 3A school since 1992. The Cubs turned in a 6-5 mark in 2012 competing in 2A, but most of their time over the past 25 years has been spent facing 3A competition.
Nevada head football coach Andrew Kleeman said he hopes the 2017 season is the start of something big for his program.
“We are proud of earning a winning record,” Kleeman said. “I don’t want to dismiss that at all, but our expectations will rise. Our players and community want to see our program compete in the postseason.”
A big reason Nevada was able to raise the bar this season was veteran leadership.
Linemen Matt Chitty, Bronzon Mason and Luke Merfeld, linebackers Preston Cattanach, Jack West and Jack Higgins and defensive backs Trent Stahl and Emilio Saldana gave Nevada a great senior core on defense. The Cub defense ended up setting a school record for tackles for loss in a season with 50, and improved on their points and yards allowed per game from 2016.
Offensively, quarterback Cam Shill, receiver/slot back Brendan Sellberg, receiver Om’Unique Wilkerson and offensive lineman Luke Durkop joined several of the aforementioned players as big senior contributors. Nevada upped their scoring average from 17.6 points in 2016 to 22.7.
On special teams, Luke Fevold and Parker Walden gave Nevada two valuable senior kickers and Stahl was a big weapon at punter.
“The contribution of this year’s senior class cannot be understated,” Kleeman said. “They are a great group of kids who have helped establish our program identity. They handled adversity well and should be very proud of their accomplishments. They will be missed.”
With several experienced players to lean on early, Nevada won both of its non-district games.
The Cubs opened with a thrilling 14-13 double-overtime win over West Marshall in State Center on Aug. 18. Nevada set a school single-game record for sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (17) against the Trojans.
After a bye week, Nevada took out Perry by a 24-7 score in its home opener at Cub Stadium on Sept. 1.
District play began with Nevada facing eventual playoff qualifier Carlisle at home. The Cubs went toe-to-toe with the explosive Wildcats for one half, trailing 35-27, before falling by a 56-34 margin.
Nevada bounced back from the Carlisle loss with a 28-14 road win over Knoxville for its first district victory. But the Cubs endured their worst outing of the season the following week, losing on homecoming to North Polk by a 42-21 score.
But Nevada showed its experience and heart by rebounding strong against Bondurant-Farrar. The Cubs turned in their best complete game of the season, knocking off the Bluejays for an exciting 33-30 road win.
On Oct. 6, Nevada hosted Grinnell on senior night. Playing in wet and gloomy conditions, the Cubs gutted out a 23-9 win, coming from 9-7 down early in the fourth quarter to secure a winning season.
The season came to a close with Nevada going on the road to face two traditional powers in Norwalk and three-time defending 3A state champion Pella. The Cubs dropped both outings, falling by respective 34-7 and 49-20 scores.
“We had a great group of kids to work with this season,” Kleeman said. “As a coach, you appreciate when the kids work hard and have fun. It is a group that gets along well on and off the field. I also felt the kids have begun to take more ownership in their football program.”
Aggressive play and quickness on both sides of the ball helped Nevada compensate for a lack of size to be competitive in 3A District 2.
“We had good team speed overall,” Kleeman said. “When we were able to get our athletes in space, we were successful offensively. Defensively, we had a really good pass rush. When we were able to maintain the line of scrimmage, it allowed for us to shoot gaps and make tackles for loss.
Kleeman added that the team must strive to get bigger and stronger in order to keep improving as a program.
“Our lack of size was a challenge,” Kleeman said. “In most of the games we lost, size and strength were a major factor. Our kids did a nice job battling and utilizing their speed to counter our lack of size. We are continuing to build our weight program to help close the gap. I’m really proud of the sacrifice some of our players made — changing positions and putting the team first.”
On offense, Nevada averaged 306.6 yards per game for the second year in a row. But the Cubs had a better ground game than last year, running for 191.4 and passing for 115.2 per game, compared to 160 rushing and 146.6 passing in 2016.
Stahl, Sellberg and junior tailback Jakob Strottman were the top playmakers for Nevada on offense.
Stahl led Nevada in receiving with 28 catches for 329 yards and three touchdowns. Stahl was also the team’s second-leading rusher with 472 yards and six touchdowns on 5.0 yards per carry and he completed 5 of 15 passes for 55 yards.
Sellberg was also a big dual-threat at running and catching the football. Playing for the first time since his sophomore season, Sellberg ran for 440 yards and four touchdowns on 6.9 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 296 yards and four scores.
Strottman was the top ball carrier for Nevada. He ran for 767 yards and three touchdowns on 158 carries and also caught five passes for 21 yards.
Wilkerson and Higgins were reliable receiving targets for Nevada.
Wilkerson made 15 catches for 213 yards and one touchdown and also ran for 24 yards and a score at receiver. Higgins caught 11 balls for 177 yards and two touchdowns at tight end.
Shill was the signal caller for Nevada. In his first full season as the Cub starting quarterback, Shill completed 73 of 156 passes for 981 yards with 10 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and he also ran for one touchdown.
Defensively, Nevada yielded 29.7 points and 287 yards per game — both improvements from last year’s respective totals of 33.1 and 338. In 2017, the Cubs recorded 27 sacks and forced 20 turnovers with 14 fumble recoveries and six interceptions.
Cattanach, Strottman, West, Stahl, junior linebacker Sam Abraham, Chitty and Higgins all made at least 40 tackles for Nevada this season.
Cattanach tallied 57.5 tackles, including 47 solo stops, three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Strottman came up with 49.5 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, eight sacks and three fumble recoveries.
Strottman also tied Tate Harrison’s school record for sacks in a game with four.
Stahl picked up 46.5 tackles. He also intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown.
West finished the season with 47 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery. Abraham delivered 43 tackles, two tackles for loss and one interception and fumble recovery apiece.
Chitty was a dominant force up front for the Nevada defense. He totaled 41 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two fumble recoveries — returning one for a touchdown.
Higgins finished the season with 40.5 tackles. He ended up with six tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery.
Mason, Andrew Saunders and Merfeld all topped 20 tackles for Nevada.
Mason compiled 29 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. Saunders finished with 27.5 tackles, one tackle for loss, one fumble recovery and one interception returned 40 yards for a touchdown.
Merfeld tacked on 23.5 tackles, 6.5 stops behind the line, 3.5 sacks and one fumble recovery.
Saldana ended up with 15.5 tackles and one tackle for loss. Tony Adelmund and Joseph DePenning each recovered a fumble.
On special teams, Stahl averaged 37.9 yards on 44 punts and Kody Kruschwitz punted four times for a 23.8-yard average. Jack Cahill made 14 of 16 extra points and two field goals, with a long of 31 yards.
Fevold was 6 of 7 on extra points and he converted one 24-yard field goal. Walden made his only extra-point attempt and also kicked off nine times.
Stahl returned 10 punts for an average of 17.4 yards and averaged 12.9 yards on 16 kickoff returns. Saldana returned seven kickoffs for an average of 16.4 yards and five punts for an average of 8.0 yards.
Next season, Nevada will have its hands full trying to replace such a talented senior class. But with redistricting, the Cubs might go back down to 2A and with Strottman, Abraham and Saunders back to lead the way, they still have the potential to make some noise.
“We have to be detail-oriented and commit more than ever to our strength program,” Kleeman said. “That is the only way to close the gap in high school football today. Teams who are doing the little things right each day are successful most years. Programs who don’t commit to off-season development experience inconsistency. We have to earn everything.”