Since the turn of the twenty first century, there have been twenty seasons of high school football played here in Nebraska.
The Class A landscape is one that rarely changes, excepting the addition of new schools or programs bouncing back and forth from the lower ranks of the big boy class to the higher enrollment numbers of Class B. So, naming the top program since 2000 in Class A would be much easier than any of the lower classes in my opinion.
But, what is used as a 20 year measuring stick for determining which football program is best? Overall record (winning percentage), state championships, playoff appearances, number of winning seasons?
My personal preference is consistency (overall winning percentage), a very revealing statistic when measured over a long period of time, although many forget football programs who put together multiple winning seasons just 10 years ago. Unless you are a football coach, sports writer, or parent who had a son(s) playing in that era, fans tend to live in the present and recognize the current powerhouse team(s)…..aka Bellevue West right now.
Now, before we proceed, I will admit encountering a few problems finding Class A football records for a few teams in the years 2000 and 2001, but the 20 year records for most teams since the turn of the century are mostly complete, so here are my findings.
The first school that comes to mind as Class A’s Best since 2000, is Bellevue West. Since 2014, the mighty Thunderbirds have compiled an incredible 65-7 record, easily the best in “A” the past six years. Last year’s 13-0, state champion Bellevue West team was considered by some to be the the best Class A football team of all time.
I am missing the the years 2000 and 2002, but the Thunderbirds combined record for those remaining 18 seasons is an eye opening 134-61, a 68.7 winning percentage with two state titles to go along with it..
If you were from my era, spanning the 1960s through the 90s, the names Creighton Prep and Lincoln Southeast are the two power programs that you think of initially, especially Creighton Prep.
NO football team, regardless of class, has made the playoffs more times than the tradition rich Junior Jays. Under the leadership of legendary coach Tom Jaworsky for 40 seasons, Creighton Prep actually qualified for the post season a staggering 41 times during the past 45 years. Only Omaha Westside with 34 appearances since 1975, and Lincoln Southeast at 34 are close.
Creighton Prep missed playing in the post season prior to the year 2000 only four times (1975, 1990, 1992, 1994) since the NSAA began sponsoring playoffs in 1975. The Jays also captured six Class A titles during that 25 year time period and added four runners-up trophies before the turn of the century.
Then there was Lincoln Southeast, who qualified for the playoffs 18 out of 25 times between 1975 and 1999. Despite missing the post season three more times than Creighton Prep during that spell, the powerful Knights matched Prep’s Class A championships total of six, with a trio of runners-up finishes.
In fact, Southeast beat Creighton Prep for the Class A spoils in both the 1976 and ‘77 title games under then head coach Frank Solich.
You also cannot forget teams like Omaha Central and Omaha Westside during that 1975-2000 time period, although the two schools have only ONE state championship apiece to their credit during that quarter of a century we speak of.
But what about the 2000s, the past twenty seasons? Did Creighton Prep and Lincoln Southeast keep up with the new stalwarts like Bellevue West and the now powerful Millard schools? Let’s find out.
*Omaha Central - Many still associate the name “I-Back High” with Omaha Central. That tag began back in the day when such 1000 yard rusher, household names like Gale Sayers, Ahman Green, Leodis Flowers, Calvin Jones, Keith Jones, Ronnell Grixby, Damion Morrow, JaMaine Billups, Terry Evans, Jackie Davis and Bernard Jackson were tearing up the turf in the Metro, but as legendary as these players seem to be, the Eagles struggled to win state championships, even before 2000.
Since the year 2000, Omaha Central is barely above .500, winning 102 games and losing 101 (50.2% win rate) with just 12 playoff appearances. Coach Jay Ball led the Eagles to their only state championship in this era we speak of, taking it all in 2007 with Ronnell Grixby and the boys.
Central has compiled just two double digit win seasons since 2000 while suffering through 10 losing campaigns, including the past four in a row. Despite that, the Eagles really have not fallen from grace, so to speak, since the playoff era spanning 1975 to 1999 when they qualified for the post season just 10 times in 25 years.
*Lincoln Southwest - The “second newest” high school in Lincoln, which opened its doors in 2002, has done remarkably well on the gridiron the past 18 seasons. The Silverhawks sport a 104-77 record since opening (57.5% win rate), have appeared in the post season 15 times, have one double- digit win campaign, and have experienced only four sub .500 seasons.
*Omaha Burke - Although Burke has a 19 year record of 120-72 (62.5% ) (missing 2001), the Bulldogs are currently in the midst of a four year hot streak, rolling up 39 wins with just 7 losses and a 2018 Class A title to go with it since 2016
Youngstown, Ohio native Paul Lamongi took over the head coaching job at Omaha Burke in 2006 and has since put together a record of 103-58 and it doesn’t appear the Bulldogs are going away soon.
Burke has been in the Class A playoff field 16 of the past 20 seasons with a 2018 state championship and 2012 runner-up finish to show for it. The Bulldogs also have a pair of double digit win seasons since 2000 and have experienced only 5 losing seasons since that time.
*Millard South - Millard South is a football team that has not only qualified for the playoffs 16 times in the past two decades, but when the Patriots get there, they usually mean business. Millard South has actually made the post season 21 times since 1987, but have lost just five times in the opening round during that time period.
Since 2000 (I’m missing 2001), Millard South has compiled 127-74 record (63.2% win rate) over 19 seasons, winning a Class A title in 2009 with QB Bronson Marsh leading the way. The Patriots also were in the state championship game the year before, dropping the game 21-8 to Millard West. But as I mentioned above, Millard South gained big time revenge in that 2009 title match, defeating the Wildcats, 44-17.
The past 20 years, the Patriots also have four double digit win seasons while posting a losing record just four times during that span.
*Lincoln Southeast - As mentioned earlier, the Knights of Lincoln Southeast were one of the most feared football teams in Class A during that 1975 to 1999 time period, thanks to the great Chuck Mizerski. There were also just four public schools in the Capital City when Southeast became a power.
The glory years at Southeast started with a pair of Class A Championships in 1977 and 1978 with Frank Solich at the controls. Nebraska High School Hall of Fame coach Chuck Mizerski took over the head coaching duties in 1979 and proceeded to build powerful football program that would net the super coach 274 wins, 8 State Championships and three runner-up trophies before he retired at the conclusion of the 2006 season.
Two of those Class A championships for Lincoln Southeast and Mizerski came after the year 2000. The Knights won it all in both 2000 and 2002.
Chuck Mizerski gave the Knights a great kick start to the 21st Century, compiling a 42-4 record the first four seasons. But the opening of Lincoln Southwest in 2002 and Lincoln North Star the following year put an end to the Lincoln Southeast dynasty by spreading the talent throughout six Lincoln Public schools instead of the previous four school setup.
The Knights actually fell to 4-5 in 2004, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1994. Mizerski had Lincoln Southeast in the playoffs again, despite a 5-4 record, then slipped to 3-6 in 2006 before calling it quits.
Another Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Famer John Larsen then took over the head coaching duties in 2007. After back to back 1-8 seasons, the basketball coaching legend led the Knights gridiron team to remarkable seasons of 9-2 and 10-2, setting the table for Ryan Gottula, who assumed heading coaching duties in 2011.
Gottula won a state championship his first year at the controls and has compiled a record of 59-34 since.
Despite the so called “slide” from Class A football prominence, Lincoln Southeast still has a very respectable 20 year record of 136-74, a 64.8 win percentage. The Knights have made the playoffs 13 times during that period, had five double digit win seasons, but have suffered through seven losing seasons.
If you are from my era, the name Lincoln Southeast is still synonymous with football excellence.
*Omaha North - It took head coach Larry Martin only two seasons to turn this Omaha North program around and headed in the right direction after his arrival in 2000. Prior to arriving at Omaha North, Larry Martin was the head man at Class C-2 Fremont Bergan, where he led the Knights to a 50-20 record during his tenure there.
Can you be successful jumping from a C-2 football school to the rigors of big boy Class A football, where they beat your brains out week in and week out? Martin knew he could for the simple reason Bergan was playing in the brutal Centennial Conference, where you coached against guys like Ron Mimick at Aquinas, Tim Turman @ Wahoo Neumann and Carl Tesmer at GICC and later St. Cecilia.
All Martin has done at Omaha North is fashion a 140-75 record (65.1%) the past 20 seasons with FIVE Class A championships and a runner-up included in there. That magical six year Omaha North run stretching from 2012 to 2017, produced four titles, a runner-up trophy and a 65-12 record. And the amazing thing about that run was the fact Martin wasn’t afraid of losing games early in the season, giving his young players time to develop and be poised for a playoff run.
Worked like a charm for six straight seasons.
The Vikings have made the post season 16 of the past 20 years, have five double digit win seasons and endured only five losing seasons, two of those coming when Larry Martin took over in 2000.
And…..consider the fact before Martin arrived on the scene at Omaha North, the Vikings had made it to the playoffs just four times since 1975, losing first round games every single time. I’m thinking Mr. Martin’s head coaching gig at North is probably on pretty solid ground, wouldn’t you?
*Grand Island - The proud Islanders, who have posted a 132-68 record (2001 missing) over a 19 year span, have won 66% of their football games, thanks to head coach Jeff Tomlin.
Tomlin, who took the Islanders reigns in 2003, has earned the respect of the Omaha Metro coaching community over the years. Islander football has reached the post season 17 of the past 20 seasons, compiling three double digit win seasons while only experiencing three losing seasons the past 20 years.
Grand Island has one state runner-up trophy, that coming two years ago when they lost a 24-20 heartbreaker to Omaha Burke in the 2018 title game.
*Bellevue West - The Kings of Nebraska high school football right now with that 65-7 record the past six seasons. The Mighty Thunderbirds program has flourished under head man Michael Huffman, hitting full stride a year ago when nobody stayed on the field with them except Millard West.
I could not locate their 2000, 2002 records, but the T-Birds have a record of 134-61 (68.7%) since 2000, with two state championships, five double digit win seasons, four coming since 2015. Bellevue West has also qualified for post season play 18 of the past 20 years with only five losing seasons sprinkled in there.
This program will continue to excel under the direction of Michael Huffman, one of the best head coaches in the biz, period.
*Millard North - I’m an old school football guy and love the run, but understand we’re not in the “3 yards and a cloud of dust” game plan these days. That is precisely why Freddy Petitio and his Millard North running offense intrigued me. They defied logic and modern day football way, way longer than should have been possible.
Petito always made certain he groomed a thousand yard rushing, option quarterback that, according to Fred, ran 10,000 reps on that patented Mustang option pitch during the summer.
It certainly must have worked like a charm in 2005 when the Mustangs set an 11-Man state record for Rushing Yards average per game with 459.1. I believe that ranked second nationally that year as the Mustangs ran to a Class A title, compiling a 12-1 record.
To this day, that 2005 backfield of QB Jeff Tarpinian (2,072 yards), RB Corey Young (1,628) and FB Paul Homer (1,200) are the only Class A team in history to have three one thousand yard rushers in the same backfield. Had Corey Young not been ejected in the 2005 state quarterfinal win over Papio (for retaliating to a punch), he may well have gained 2000 yards, but instead sat out the Mustangs 20-13 semifinal victory over Millard West.
Despite defying all logical odds of modern day defensive football, Millard North has still compiled a sparkling 20 year record of 154-70 (68.8%) since 2000. During that span, the Mustangs have captured FIVE Class A championships, finished runner-up one time, and recorded EIGHT double digit win seasons, qualifying for the playoffs 18 times.
Even more shocking is Millard North has SEVEN losing seasons in there (feast or famine), two of which have come in 2018 and 2019.
*Kearney - Talk about a team that rarely experiences a losing season. Head Coach Brandon Cool took over the Kearney gig in 2001 and has taken his Bearcat football team to the post season 17 of those 19 seasons. The only two times Kearney did not make the playoffs in Cool’s era were 2003 and 2009, which were the Cats only two sub .500 teams.
Two losing seasons in the past 19 years tends to make one think there is a rich football tradition over there in Kearney. Ya think?
Kearney high won the Class A crown in 2006 and nearly had another three years ago but a last minute rally by Omaha North prevented that.
I’m missing the Bearcats 2000 season record, but since 2001, Kearney has logged 135 wins with just 60 losses, (69.2% win rate) and Brandon Cool has never dodged the Omaha schools in football, often times requesting some of the Metro powers when he turns in his scheduling wish list to the NSAA.
Kearney also has five double digit win seasons, three of those coming in a glory stretch from 2004 to 2007 when the Cats went 42-6. This is one of Class A’s premier gridiron programs.
*Omaha Westside - It’s hard to believe that with all the success Omaha Westside has enjoyed the past 20 years, they have zero Class A championships to show for it. Since 2000, the Warriors have won 146 games while losing just 70 times (69.9% win rate). For all practical purposes, Westside has won 70% of their last 216 games, third best in the big boy class since the turn of the century.
The Warriors have missed the post season just one time since the year 2000, appearing in the Class A finals three times. Westside was thumped pretty good by Kearney in the 2006 title game (41-21), and of course by Bellevue West in the snow last November, but the 23-21 loss to Omaha North in the 2013 championship had to really sting.
Head Coach Brent Froendt, who took over the head coaching duties at Westside in 2009 when he inherited little, has done an outstanding job after that 1-8 rookie year. The 1988 UNL graduate has gone 76-41 since, with ten consecutive playoff appearances.
*Creighton Prep - One of the questions I asked earlier in this article was if this Creighton Prep program had slipped during the past 20 years or not. The short answer to that question is…….NOT.
Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame coaching legend Tom Jaworski led this legendary Creighton Prep program for FORTY years before calling it a career in 2010.
Jaws, who retired with 343 wins against only 92 defeats, NEVER had a losing season at Prep in his life. EVER. During his 11 years at Creighton Preparatory School (had to throw that in) since the turn of the century, Jaworski went 95-31, qualified for the post season 11 times, won one state championship (2004) and finished runner-up twice.
So, since 2000, the Junior Jays have gone 160-67 (70.5%), have made the playoffs EVERY YEAR, won one title and finished second three times. Prep also has five double digit win seasons with only one under .500, and that was when they finished 4-6, the year after Tom Jaworski retired.
You think this Creighton Prep program hasn’t been the gold standard since the playoffs began in 1975? Oh, I think so considering the Jays have qualified for the post season 41 of the past 45 years.
**The Class A football team with the highest winning percentage since 2000?**
**Millard West** - You talk about a school with a culture of winning. Since opening its doors in 1995, Millard West has had only TWO sub-.500 seasons in football. Coaching legend Danny McLaughlin kick started that Wildcat program, enjoying terrific growth the first three seasons.
I visited Coach McLaughlin the year he would later announce his move to the head coaching job at Wayne State College. That was 2002. Five years prior to that, Dan McLaughlin made one of the greatest coaching additions in all his years when he turned over the defensive coordinator gig to a young Kirk Peterson.
Peteron, the dude with the backwards ball cap made an immediate impact on that Millard West football program, having a big hand in a skyrocketing success span that saw the Cats lose only half a dozen games between ‘98 and 2001.
Millard West garnered a pair of Class A runner-up trophies in ‘98 amd ‘99, then a state championship in 2001 when the Wildcats bested a North Platte team that boasted a young sophomore named Danny Woodhead.
Since taking the reins from Danny McLaughlin in 2003, Kirk Peterson has won 149 games and lost only 48. Millard West has qualified for the post season 16 of 17 times under Peterson, won a Class A championship in 2008 and finished second in 2009 and 2015.
Kirk Peterson also has two of his former players playing in the NFL in the likes of Harrison Phillips (Buffalo Bills) and Matt Longacre (Los Angeles Rams).
Now the stat that makes Millard West the most successful program in Class A since the turn of the Century; 177 wins, 52 losses, a win percentage of 77.3%. The Wildcats also have two state championships during this span, a pair of runner-ups, 19 of 20 appearances in the post season and 13 straight, 8 double digit win seasons, three 9 win seasons and four 8 win years with only one losing season, 4-5 in 2006.
These boys just don’t miss. As Kirk Peterson has always stated “we may experience a few stumbling blocks early, but are ready to go come playoff time”. Amen brother!
……..And a few last words here. If you think winning percentage should not have been the criteria for determining the most successful Class A program since the year 2000, here are a few other categories for those who prefer other measurements of success for a football program.
*MOST WINS* - Here are your top three since 2000; Millard West-177, Creighton Prep-160, Millard North-154.
*MOST PLAYOFF APPEARANCES* - Creighton Prep-20, Millard West-19, Omaha Westside-19, Bellevue West-18, Millard North-18
*MOST CHAMPIONSHIPS* (since 2000) - Millard North-5, Omaha North-4, Lincoln SE-3
*MOST RECENT SUCCESS - Bellevue West by a country mile. The past six seasons the Playmakers in Purple compiled a record of 65-7 with two state titles. Millard West is next with a 56-14 mark since 2014.
And the only team to give the Mighty Thunderbirds of Bellevue West a game this past season…...Millard West, 37-30 in the Class A semifinals. No other team came close to Bell West in 2019 when many of their games seemed like a glorified scrimmage under the Friday Night Lights.