The Union Knights begin their quest to repeat as state champions in a bit of an unusual situation. After conquering some tough competition in Class 3A, the Knights have dropped down a class and will look to bring their brand of football to 2A this fall.
Despite losing one of the state's best players in Wes Burnside, the Knights return plenty of talent, which should make the transition an easy one. 22 seniors will be returning, giving the Knights one of the most experienced rosters in the state, let alone their division.
Class 2A District 3 is home to Columbus Catholic, Central Springs, Hampton-Dumont, New Hampton, Osage and Waukon. The Knights will be immediately competitive and will be the overwhelming favorites to win the district title.
Last season, Union finished 12-2 (5-2) on its way to a state championship, the first in school history. The schedule sets up favorably this year for return trip to the UNI Dome, despite the change in class. The season opener at home against Center Point-Urbana, and the away game at Aplington-Parkersburg the following week will be good opportunities for the team to see where they are before district play begins against Central Spings in week three.
The offensive side of the ball is loaded with talent, led by a quarterback-wide receiver tandem of Jay Scheel and Trev Hadachek. Scheel, who has already received scholarship offers from Iowa, Iowa State and Minnesota, will lead a potent passing attack that was one of the top scoring teams in the state last year. Scheel is just a junior, and has already developed into one of the most effective running and passing threats at the quarterback position in Iowa high school football.
Hadachek, who will be a senior this year, is one of the fastest players on the team and will provide a legitimate deep threat for the Knights. Hadachek has also received his share of scholarship offers, which are sure to increase with a solid senior season. He currently has offers from North Dakota, South Dakota State and Eastern Illinois.
The void left by the departure of Wes Burnside at running back will be filled by a duo of capable backs, who will both be looking to solidify their position as the team's top running threat.
Mitchell Dierks has starting experience, but will be fighting hard for his job with a more-than-capable Andrew Osuna challenging him. The increased competition will hopefully lead to another good year running the football for the Knights. HaLanier Holmes also looks to earn himself some playing time out of the backfield.
Will Crees will step in at the tight end position, and coaches hope he will utilize his blocking skills to help open up opportunities for the offense, as well as make his share of catches.
Perhaps one of the most important keys to success this year will be the play of the offensive line, and with the experience the Knights have in this regard, they'll be tough to beat. Four of the five linemen are returning starters, all of which are seniors. Tanner Heckt, Justin Clark and Chase Hansen will join First Team All-State lineman Josh Clark in protecting Scheel and opening up holes for the backs. Clark will have a significant edge in that he is one of the strongest players in the class, setting Union's all-tiem bench and squat marks in the weight room this past spring.
Aside from the starters, Union is lucky enough to have some quality bench players who could also compete for starting spots in the season's earlygoing. Brian Dunkelberger, Christian Gray, Austin Pauling and Bo Bad are among the players coaches will be keeping a close eye on.
The Union defense in 2011 was one of the main reasons the team was able to make the jump from district powerhouse to state title contender, and replacing some of the seniors this year will be a challenge.
Secondary play will be important, especially with the warm weather in the early portion of the season allowing quarterbacks to throw the ball more effectively. The Knights will look to their offensive weapons to provide a quality back end of the defense, with Hadachek playing safety and Scheel expected to play cornerback.
Crees, who was a First Team All-District performer last season at linebacker, will again look to shut down opposing running games. Crees is a three-year starter and the team's leading returning tackler.
Josh Clark and Dalton Crosser will anchor the interior of the defensive line, with Tanner Heckt looking to provide a rush from the outside. Hanson, along with Justin and Jacob Clark, will compete for additional starting spots in the linebacking corps.
On special teams, the Knights will rely heavily on Scheel and Hadachek to use their speed in the return game. Brady Petersen will be the team's kicker this year, following up on a 2011 season which saw him develop into one of the state's most reliable kickers. He may also compete for the punter spot, which is up in the air in the moment and remains one of the team's most pressing concerns.
However the starting spots shake out, the 2012 Union football team looks ready to - and certainly capable of - competing for another district and state title this season.