How Nevada High School football's elite defense turned the program from pushover to powerhouse

Joe Randleman
Ames Tribune
Defensive back Caleb Kooiker (left), defensive end Gavin Melohn (center) and linebacker Cael Franzen lead an elite defense that has helped the Nevada football team start off 5-0 and earn a No. 5 ranking in Class 3A heading into Friday's game at Ballard.

Under the direction of Andrew Kleeman, the Nevada football program has gone from pushover to powerhouse.

The Cubs had struggled to put together a winning team for decades before Kleeman took over in 2016. They had one winning season in the previous 23 years before his arrival.

But Kleeman led Nevada to a 6-3 record in 2017. After a 3-6 campaign the following year the 2019 Cubs went 7-2 and narrowly missed the playoffs.

Last year they were 6-3 and fell one victory shy of winning a district title.

This season Nevada is looking at making history. The Cubs are 5-0 and ranked fifth in Class 3A entering Friday's game against rival Ballard at Huxley.

“The goal this year is to continue to change the culture of Nevada football,” Nevada middle linebacker Cael Franzen said. “We’ve put a lot of work in during the offseason to make a run as far as we can go.” 

Franzen and the defense are a big reason why Nevada has suddenly become a juggernaut on the gridiron.  

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Through its first five games, Nevada has given up just 10.8 points and 204.2 yards per game. The Cubs have forced 10 turnovers — five fumble recoveries and interceptions apiece — and they lead 3A in sacks with 15.

“We’re solid at every position,” Kleeman said. “We’ve got pass rushers, we’ve got tacklers and athletes that can match up with every team. That’s why we’ve been able to play a very aggressive style of defense.”

Nevada is led by an outstanding senior core on the defensive side of the ball.

Franzen leads the team in tackles with 45 and he has one fumble recovery. Free safety Caleb Kooiker is right behind Franzen in tackles with 44.5.

“Cael has played a lot of games for us — there’s nothing that he hasn’t seen,” Kleeman said. "Caleb is a tremendous football player. He cleans up so much stuff for us that people may not even realize. He’s a great downhill defender.” 

Caeden DaSilva and Seth Brown occupy the cornerback positions. They've combined for three interceptions so far and are outstanding at taking away the top receiving threats of opposing teams.

“I think we have two of the best cornerbacks in the whole state,” Kooiker said. “It’s kind of nice to have them out there so I can focus on my area. I can trust them.” 

Defensive end Gavin Melohn anchors the Cub defensive line.

Melohn has 18.5 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown last week in a 56-14 homecoming win over Gilbert.

“It’s real nice being the weak-side end,” Melohn said. “I’m a bit faster than the offensive linemen and this is my second year playing the position so that makes it a lot easier to make routine plays.” 

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Nevada uses a lot of formations with five defensive backs. Senior Ty Dittmer and junior Karter Beving fill the other two safety positions.

Dittmer has 23 tackles and 2.5 sacks and Beving 17 tackles and one interception.

Juniors Noah Mills and Dylan Fritz split time at the other inside linebacker spot. Mills has 18.5 tackles and Fritz seven plus a sack.

Senior Connor Schnettgoecke is at the strong-side defensive end opposite Melohn. He leads the team with five sacks and also has a fumble recovery.

Senior Cam Vincent and junior Nate Anderson plug the middle of the defensive line.

“Defensively, we’re playing some of the best team football we’ve played since I’ve been here," Kleeman said. "That’s due to the kids we have, the experience they have on the field and the fact that they just play hard. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re having success right now.” 

Safety Karter Beving (2) and defensive lineman Cam Vincent have helped a disruptive Nevada defense force 10 turnovers already this season.

Though Nevada likes to use a lot of defensive backs and odd fronts, the Cubs aren't afraid to change up formations. 

“That’s always a challenge for coaches is to try to figure out how to be simple, but also appear complex,” Kleeman said. “That’s something we’ve done pretty well — to be able to mix up coverages and fronts while at the same time keeping it simple and personnel-based.” 

But their success always comes back to the basics.

“The biggest thing is toughness and discipline on the football field,” Franzen said. “Everyone knows their assignments and has the ability to make plays.” 

The Cubs bring a lot of passion onto the field.

“I love the energy and the big hits,” Kooiker said. “Everybody really gets excited for each other.” 

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With its defense clicking, Nevada made an early statement in Week 2 against West Marshall. The Cubs traveled to State Center and pounded the No. 3 team in 2A on its own field, 35-12.

But tougher challenges lie ahead, starting this week with Ballard. The Bombers hammered a banged-up Cub team during the second round of last year's playoffs, 28-7.

“We have a chip on our shoulder for sure,” Franzen said. “We respect all of our opponents equally, so we know we have to come out and play a good game.”

Then the competition really heats up. Nevada hosts No. 10 Algona (4-1) in two weeks. On Oct. 15 the Cubs travel to Humboldt to take on the No. 7 Wildcats (5-0) before ending the regular season at home against North Polk.

“There’s no doubt we have a lot of tough games ahead of us, including this Friday night,” Kleeman said. “It might sound cliché, but our focus is one game at a time and to hopefully put ourselves in a position where maybe we can make a run.” 

With the way they are playing on defense, the Cubs are confident they can hang with anybody in 3A.

“I’m not worried about how our defense will hold up against some of these better teams," Melohn said. "If we stick to our roles and stay disciplined we’ll be just fine.”