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Lopers plan to skip rebuild year under new staff

Loper football enters a new chapter under coach Ryan Held. The Lopers finished 8-3 record a season ago, just missing out on the postseason. Photo by Shelby Berglund / Antelope Staff

The Loper football team was picked to finish fifth and sixth in the MIAA coaches and media polls this preseason, under the assumption that this year will be a rebuild under a new staff. 

An assumption that the Loper staff disagrees with.

“This is not a rebuild year,” said coach Ryan Held. “We don’t even have that in our thought process.” 

The Lopers have been an above .500 team since the 2019 season and appeared in the NCAA Division II playoffs in 2021, advancing to the second round before falling to Angelo State. In 2022, the Lopers went 8-3, falling just shy of another postseason appearance. 

The play of T.J. Davis, a two-time MIAA offensive player of the year and Harlan Hill finalist quarterback, is a large part of the Loper’s success. Davis took over as the full-time starting quarterback since 2019 and since then has accounted for over 1,000 yards rushing in each of his full seasons, accounting for 101 total touchdowns (54 passing, 47 rushing) and has passed for almost 5000 yards with only 15 interceptions on 479 attempts coming into the season. 

Davis could have left UNK after the departure of the previous staff in December, but for him, that wasn’t even an option. 

“I love being a part of the Kearney community,” Davis said. “I can’t leave without a championship, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Davis is one of three All-Americans on the Loper roster this fall. The other two being left guard Hunter Hays and punter Hunter Kraus.

Another key returner for the Lopers is senior linebacker Zach Schlager. Schlager was an all-MIAA selection in 2021, but a foot injury in fall camp last year forced him to miss the entire year. While recovering from the injury, he spent most of the year behind the scenes, working with the coaches to better his understanding of the game, an experience Schlager says will help him on and off the field. 

“I just took it as a learning year, time to recover, learned how to take care of myself,” Schlager said. “I was up in the booth a lot, expanding my mind about the game and trying to help everyone with what I saw.” 

Schlager is a part of a group of former All-MIAA picks that return for the Lopers this fall. This list includes the previously listed All-Americans, as well as center Jon Merten, safety Tre O’Guinn, defensive end Tell Spies and left tackle Kooper Reece. However, Reece may miss this season as he continues his recovery from a knee injury that ended his season in October last year. 

In all, the Lopers have 10 returning starters and 30 other players that contributed to last season’s team as letterwinners returning this fall. To complement this and help fill gaps on both sides lost to graduation, the Lopers also added 28 new transfers and 37 true freshmen to the roster. 

With plenty to replace on the field and the sidelines, many have written the Lopers off as non-contenders this year. 

This only motivates the Lopers further. 

“They think we lost everybody,” Schlager said. “But we got a lot of guys who are ready to compete and are ready to take over as soon as we get out and go.”

With plenty of new and returning talent, the Lopers open their season on the road with a long bus ride to Edmond, Oklahoma to take on the University of Central Oklahoma Bronchos on Thursday August 31.  They will open at home against the Riverhawks of Northeastern state on Saturday September 9.

Photos by Shelby Berglund / Antelope Staff

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Traeton Harimon
Traeton Harimon, Sports Editor
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