RL preview Kayden Warren

Rice Lake junior lineman Kayden Warren wraps up Eau Claire Memorial quarterback Bryson Johnson on Aug. 31, 2018 in Rice Lake.

Menomonie coach Joe LaBuda calls this year’s Big Rivers Conference “one of the best in the state.”

So who’s going to win it?

Last year, River Falls got little preseason hype but surprised everyone to bring home the gold.

Who’s turn is it this time around?

“The league was down a little last year,” said LaBuda, who has claimed 20 of the titles in 30 years. “This year the league is loaded and any one of five teams could win it.”

That echoes the sentiment of most of the coaches, whose comment is “we hope to be in the mix.”

According to the coaches, the five most likely candidates are Menomonie, Hudson, Superior, Memorial and Rice Lake but not counting out River Falls.

LaBuda points out that six of last year’s quarterbacks are gone with only Superior and Memorial bringing back their signal caller.

“I’d be surprised if they weren’t in there at the end,” he said.

Superior returns Jarrett Gronski, a feared runner who can also pass. Memorial’s Bryson Johnson threw for over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns a year ago.

But if it’s true defense wins games, the nod could go to Menomonie.

“That defense will be one of the best in the state,” Memorial’s Mike Sinz said. “It has a ton of speed.”

Although the Mustangs must find a quarterback, the defense should make it comfortable for whoever earns the job with eight returning starters snorting and pawing the turf.

Hudson has figured in the fight over the past decade and is expected to be in it again.

“Hudson is a large school with a great deal of talent,” River Falls coach Dave Crail said.

The Raiders bring back linemen Dane Demuth and Quinn Farr on offense and Cade McDonald and Torin Phillips on defense. McDonald has accepted a scholarship offer from Wisconsin.

“We’re good up front on the O and D lines,” said coach Adam Kowles. “We’re inexperienced at the skill positions on offense and defense.”

And don’t count out River Falls’ defending champions.

“We graduated some extremely talented kids but have a strong group returning along with a younger group that has really bought in to what we’re trying to build here,” said Coach Crail. “There’s a number of great teams in the conference.”

Superior coach Bob DeMeyer said River Falls has two of the best athletes in the conference along with numbers, depth and coaching while looking for his own team to contend.

“As always, every Friday night in the BRC will be a battle,” DeMeyer said. “We believe we have a team that will compete each week and can be in the mix.”

Despite the loss of nine all-conference players including two-year quarterback Peyton Buckley and speedy backs DeAirus and Marquez Clerveaux, Rice Lake expects to be in the fight once again.

The Warriors, who went 10-3 last season and to the Division 3 semifinals, boast a strong fullback in Torien Hubbard and a quality quarterback from among Tyson Tomesh, Tristan Scheuer and Cole Fenske. Big men in the line include Keith Blecdhinger, Aiden Ferguson and Kayden Warren.

Chippewa Falls lost a lot of seniors but Chuck Raykovich, dean of conference coaches in his 34th year with the Cardinals, is enjoying working with a young squad that he feels will improve each week and become a solid team.

North’s Andy Jarzynski called the Big Rivers “a brutal conference,” especially for a team that faces a long road back. “But our numbers are up and that’s the first step in working out of the hole we have here.”

Memorial not only has nine returning starters back on offense but complementing Johnson at quarterback is junior running back Loyal Crawford, who has shown enough potential to commit to the Badgers. He is expected to be one of the top backs in the league along with River Falls’ Seth Kohel, who rushed for 1,569 yards and 20 touchdowns last year.

Big Rivers

 TeamConference Overall 
River Falls6-19-2 
Rice Lake5-210-3
Chippewa Falls3-45-5

All games at 7 p.m. unless noted:

Thursday, Aug. 22: North at La Crosse Central; Menomonie at Lake Mills.

Friday, Aug. 23: Chippewa Falls at Holmen; Memorial at La Crosse Logan; Rice Lake at Medford; River Falls at New Richmond; Hudson at Onalaska; Superior at Somerset.

Thursday, Aug 29: La Crosse Central at Memorial; Holmen at Menomonie.

Friday, Aug 30: La Crosse Logan at North; Chippewa Falls at Medford; New Richmond at Rice Lake; Onalaska at River Falls; Merrill at Superior.

Saturday, Aug 31: Montini Catholic at Hudson, noon.

Friday, Sept. 6: Menomonie at Chippewa Falls; Rice Lake at Memorial; Hudson at River Falls; North at Superior.

Friday, Sept. 13: Superior at Memorial; North at Hudson; River Falls at Menomonie; Chippewa Falls at Rice Lake.

Friday, Sept. 20: Memorial at Chippewa Falls; Menomonie at North; Superior at Hudson; Rice Lake at River Falls.

Friday, Sept. 27: River Falls at Memorial; Hudson at Menomonie; North at Rice Lake; Chippewa Falls at Superior.

Friday, Oct. 4: Memorial at North; Rice Lake at Hudson; Chippewa Falls at River Falls; Menomonie at Superior.

Friday, Oct. 11: North at Chippewa Falls; Hudson at Memorial; Menomonie at Rice Lake; Superior at River Falls.

Friday, Oct. 18: River Falls at North; Chippewa Falls at Hudson; Memorial at Menomonie; Superior at Rice Lake.