Veteran Homestead football coach Dave Keel likes to schedule aggressively.
Why wouldn't he, with five WIAA state championships to his credit, including a stunning and very satisfying Division 2 crown won last fall against Waukesha West?
But Keel and the Highlanders are a little thinner and a little more inexperienced this season, and that will make the emotional and highly anticipated showdown with state D1 runner-up Arrowhead at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18 at Homestead a little more nerve-wracking than usual.
After all, it's not every day Keel and the Highlanders will get to shake hands and say hello to old friends who have changed uniforms. Fritz Rauch is now coaching Arrowhead after the school hired Rauch away from Grafton after one season. Prior to that, Rauch was the defensive coordinator and architect of several championship-level Homestead defenses.
Furthermore, Arrowhead also hired away Homestead athletics director Ryan Mangan this past spring.
In short, it's going to be an interesting evening, one in which Keel and the Highlanders are going to do their best to maintain the focus on football.
"Without a doubt, it's going to be an awesome event," he said, "but in the end it's not going to be about me or Fritz or Ryan, but the players on the field. It still comes down to them competing."
Homestead lost to Arrowhead at Arrowhead, 28-14, last season.
The Highlanders will have to compete hard to get the win in this contest but the bones are place for another strong season.
Homestead will build around returning senior quarterback Eric Zoeller, who emerged as a great leader during an impressive run to the state championship. Also returning is junior All-North Shore Conference outside linebacker Mike Bruner and all-league kicker junior Ben Price. After that, there's a lot of new for the Highlanders.
"Well, we're glad the coaches are still around because there are so many new players out there," said Keel. "Our numbers are still good (around 90, including the junior varsity) and we saw some interesting things in the scrimmage on Friday (Aug. 12), though we know there's a lot of work to be done. We just hope these new guys can pick it up in a hurry."
Zoeller will be the key to the offense. Keel calls him a "fantastic" leader who rallies his teammates well. Other people figuring to play key roles include senior center Jack Rapala and senior tackle Jack Henrichs.
But the skill positions around Zoeller will all be different from last year. One person who has emerged at this point is junior fullback Brad Woldt.
Receiver candidates include senior Drew Crabbe, junior Matt Hartlieb and senior Trevor Shahrokhi.
Keel reports that the defense is even thinner. Outside of Bruner, the only standouts so far are mammoth junior defensive tackle Jordan Schroeder (6-4, 305) and junior free safety Julius Wilkerson.
He said the linebacker and cornerback positions are still up for grabs as the defense looks for leaders to replace the graduated stars such as lineman Josh Mueller, defensive back Jake Bruner and defensive back/receiver/emotional force Jack Popp.
"There's just a lot of competition going on," he said.
Still, this being Homestead fresh off another state title, confidence is in the air.
"We really used (the title) to catapult ourselves into the offseason," keel said. 'The contact days, the weight room and the attitude have all been fantastic. I've really been impressed by the positive nature of the coaches and players. Just outstanding stuff."
He said that new cornerbacks coach Micah Adams has been an outstanding addition.
Keel did not know if another North Shore title was in the offing as graduation hits were deep across the conference, but he knows his squad will be in the mix yet again.
"We're going to maintain continuity," he said.
Where are the freshmen?: Programs across the North Shore are struggling at the lower levels. Keel reports that the only programs in the league with full three-level (including freshmen) schedules are Cedarburg, Germantown and Homestead. With the shortage of freshmen elsewhere, it's been a struggle to find games for the younger players, Keel said.
Wistful nostalgia: If the approved WIAA realignment goes through, fans will circle the Sept. 9 date at Germantown and shake their heads, because it may be the last game between these storied rivals for quite some time. Germantown is slated to move to the Greater Metro Conference in the fall of 2017.
We say: This is still Homestead. The Highlanders have replaced huge senior classes before and won conference titles and gone deep into the playoffs the following year time and again. Behind a great quarterback like Zoeller, there is no reason to doubt the Highlanders will build another contender again. It will all come down to how fast the defense and the skill position people develop.
First team: Ben Price (K), Michael Bruner (OLB)
Second team: None
Honorable mention: Eric Zoeller (QB)
First-team losses: Chris Malicky (OL), Matt Winters (RB), Josh Mueller (DE), Jack Popp (DB, P), Jake Bruner (DB)
Coach: Dave Keel
Conference: 6-1 (tied for title)
Outcome: Won WIAA Division 2 championship over Waukesha West, 28-12
Last year (home in bold)
Arrowhead L 28-14
Kenosha Indian Trail W 25-7
Grafton W 36-0
Germantown L 34-29
Milwaukee Lutheran W 34-14
Port Washington W 49-0
Nicolet W 35-0
Whitefish Bay W 35-13
Cedarburg W 35-0
Germantown W 36-6
Cedarburg W 29-6
Brookfield East W 35-25
Chippewa Falls W 27-23
Waukesha West W 28-12
Aug. 18 Arrowhead
Aug. 26 at Kenosha Indian Trail
Sept. 2 Grafton
Sept. 9 at Germantown
Sept. 16 Milwaukee Lutheran
Sept. 23 at Port Washington
Sept. 30 Nicolet
Oct. 7 Whitefish Bay
Oct. 14 at Cedarburg