Cohesive to their core
Key Kaneland players continue as teammates on college gridiron
ELBURN—Kaneland High School football players swapping their black-and-white jerseys after graduation for the blue and orange of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville has become a common occurrence over the past few years.
Two prominent members of last season’s Knights’ squad that mowed through the schedule undefeated before bowing to Lincoln-Way West in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs last fall are the latest Kaneland products to join head coach Mike Emendorfer’s club.
Zach Theis, a two-year starting left tackle who was named to the Illinois Football Coaches Association’s Class 5A all-state football team as a senior, and linebacker/safety Blake Bradford, are preparing to take their grid careers to the next level at the NCAA Division III school this fall.
“I’m very excited,” Bradford said. “Football is something I enjoy greatly, and to be able to keep on playing after high school is something that I thought I’d never accomplish.”
“He’s a hard-nosed, tough young man,” Emendorfer said. “I’m looking forward to him coming into the program. Blake’s goal is to play a role on special teams and learn the system as quickly as possible his freshman year. Blake is going to be a safety or outside linebacker; he’s one of those ‘tweeners. When we get him into camp we’re going to figure that out.”
Emendorfer also is looking forward to adding Theis, the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference East Offensive Player of the Year, to the mix on the O-line.
“You don’t find too many players in high school being recognized as Player of the Year as an offensive lineman,” Emendorfer said. “We think he has a chance to compete for playing time, but we’re very careful about making any promises. He has talent; it’s just a matter of making that transition to college.”
Theis’ mindset going into the season is to contribute in any way possible.
“I’m going to go in and try my hardest and do everything they want me to do,” Theis said. “If it ends up being a starting spot, that’s the way it’s going to be, but if it’s not that, I’ll fill my role on the team and be a team player.”
The former Kaneland stars also will be roommates at their new school. They’ll be living in a dorm on campus.
“We’ve got everything,” Theis said. “We’re just trying to find a couch.”
No doubt, Kaneland products Quinn Buschbacher and Ryley Bailey, both wideouts on the squad, will help Theis and Bradford adjust to life at UW-Platteville both on and off the field. Bradford and Theis played alongside Buschbacher in 2011, while Bradford and Bailey have known each other since they were kids.
“It’s definitely nice to go in there and play with someone you’ve already played with before,” Bradford said. “Not a lot of people get to do that, and I think it’s going to be fun.”
Buschbacher, a sophomore for the Pioneers, recalls how Bailey, now a senior, took him under his wing when he became part of the team last year. He plans on mentoring Theis and Bradford once they arrive in Platteville.
“With Ryley, it was super nice coming into college,” Buschbacher said. “He acted like my older brother. I’ll be like Blake and Zach’s brother like Ryley did with me.”
There will be plenty for the new freshmen to adapt to, Buschbacher noted, such as a noticeable uptick in the speed of the game, managing their classes and their schedules.
“They’ve still got to learn the playbook, and the coaches have to get a feel for how they adapt to the level of speed, playing at a high level and being consistent,” Buschbacher said.
But Buschbacher believes Theis and Bradford will make a smooth transition to college ball. Coaches at UW-Platteville and Kaneland have developed a strong relationship over the years, and the two schools run the same type of offense and utilize similar terminology.
“They’re Kaneland boys,” Buschbacher said. “Ryley and I were able to adapt very well. Kaneland has a very good tradition and consistently plays at a very high level. It allows us to come in, work hard and have that determination to push through and reach whatever level we want to.”
They’ve adapted well, indeed. Bailey led the Pioneers in receptions (70), receiving yards (849) and touchdowns (10) last season. He was named a first-team all-Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) player and also was selected national Division III Receiver of the Week after catching 11 passes for 191 yards and two scores during a 49-19 win over UW-Eau Claire.
Emendorfer said Bailey has the potential to be an all-American candidate this season.
“I’ve been in college coaching at Platteville 15 years, and Ryley is one of most intelligent football players I’ve ever coached,” he said. “What Ryley brings to the table is football savvy. He’s our Swiss knife. He can do everything; he can block, catch the vertical game, catch the short game and is a very versatile athlete. He’s one of our best blocking receivers. When we need a big play, Ryley’s the guy we go to.”
Buschbacher, meanwhile, caught 26 passes for 216 yards and two TDs last year. Emendorfer indicated he has big plans for the team’s 2012 freshman Player of the Year this season.
“Quinn is very explosive,” Emendorfer said. “He can take a 5-yard pass and turn it into a 50-yard touchdown easily. As the year went on, he got more and more playing time. Offensively, we averaged over 40 points per game (last year). The reason is because of people like Quinn and Ryley. We’re hoping for big things next year.”
The Pioneers, coming off an 8-2 record—their first 8-2 season since 1976—are garnering national attention. They’re ranked 14th in Lindy’s Sports Magazine’s Division III pre-season top 25.
Buschbacher said he feels confident the Pioneers can live up to their preseason billing, if not exceed expectations. Making the Division III playoffs, and advancing in the postseason, are among the Pioneers’ goals for 2013.
“I’m really excited,” Buschbacher said. “We have a good group of guys that are motivated to be successful. The Stagg Bowl (the Division III national championship game) is out there for us to take, but it’s up to us to reach that goal. We know it’s out there. We have to do whatever we can to capture it.”