VICTORIA — One foot. One inch. One point.
That’s what is printed on the front of the gray T-shirts.
And that’s what the Victoria High School football team is focusing on entering the 2017 season.
The Knights won back-to-back Eight Man Division II state titles in 2014 and 2015. But a year ago, Victoria went 5-4 with a young team that featured only two seniors in Eight Man Division I.
What made the season difficult to swallow was the fact that one single district point kept the Knights from making the postseason. Instead, that second spot behind Osborne — the eventual state champ — went to Solomon, a team Victoria defeated by the mercy rule in the final regular season game.
But due to allowing an extra point in a game and not making one themselves, the Knights were on the outside looking in for a playoff spot for the first time in more than a decade.
“That’s the motto this year,” said senior center and nose guard Wyatt Engel.
“We definitely were kicking ourselves, especially after the Logan-Palco game,” said senior quarterback Collin Kisner. “We came up just a little bit short there, and all that matters in the end. We missed it by a point, and that shows how something so small as a two-point conversion can keep you out of the playoffs.”
That Logan-Palco district game ended in a 50-28 loss for Victoria. It was safe to say it wasn’t the best outing the Knights had last year.
“You can go back and look at the Logan-Palco game,” said head coach Doug Oberle. “Obviously, we’re getting beat. We give up a touchdown late in the ball game and then give up the extra point. Those are things we talked about all year. The game isn’t over until it’s over. We have to compete up until the end. I felt we kind of quit there a little bit. I think Bennington, kind of the same way. At the same time, we scored late and missed the extra point. If we stop an extra point or make an extra point, we have an opportunity to go to the playoffs. Learning lessons, life lessons, and hopefully we can correct those and be a better football team this year.”
Oberle has seen improvement in his team defensively this preseason. It’s one of the areas he said the Knights needed to show growth in — and quickly.
“We’ve done a good job in the weight room in the offseason,” Oberle said. “I feel we’re a pretty complete team in terms of athleticism. We have some good size, have some good athletes. Now it’s a matter of are we good football players. Defensively, we were not a good team last year. We’ve got to get better on that side of the ball if we want to be one of those teams at the end of the year that has an opportunity.”
Seniors Cooper Pfanenstiel and Cole Schmidtberger will play key roles at linebacker this fall for Victoria, which allowed an average of 24 points per game in 2016. The Knights allowed a season-high 54 points to Osborne, which went undefeated en route to the state crown.
“We just have to come out ready to play against everybody else, just like we did against Solomon,” Pfanenstiel said.
Victoria has six starters returning on offense and six on defense.
“I like our kids,” Oberle said. “They’ve worked hard, and we have a good number of kids out. That’s encouraging. I think the guys get along well. Those are all good things. If you have those things, you can work with it. We’re hungry, but at the same time, everyone else is hungry. There’s some good football teams out there this year.”
The schedule once again will be tough. The Knights open at Central Plains before hosting Macksville. Week 4 has the team traveling to Otis-Bison before hosting Logan-Palco the following week to open district play.
The final four weeks are also district games against Bennington, at Osborne, against Lincoln and at Solomon.
“We just want to come back this year and do a lot better than we did last year,” Engel said.
“People who sleep on Osborne are not giving them the credit,” Oberle said about a Bulldog team that lost several key players. “There were some kids on their sidelines that could have played for a lot of teams last year. They are going to be very good. Solomon lost some kids, but they’ve always got a good number of kids out. They’re always a big, physical group. Coach Tiernan has been around for awhile and done a lot of good things. And obviously Logan-Palco is a good team that last year was, in terms of fundamental football, one of the best we saw all last year. They have a special running back there, some weapons, a good offensive and defensive line. Bennington is a good football team, and Lincoln is a team on the rise. It’s going to be fun. It is what it is. You’ve got to play them, and for us to get where we want to get, we have to play those teams. It’s no big deal. They’re on our schedule. We just have to go out and do it. As long as we put our best foot forward, we’ll be fine.”
Offensively, Kisner returns at quarterback, and Pfanenstiel will serve as a running back again.
“These guys around me have really grown, and so have I,” Kisner said. “You can tell they guys have come into their role for sure.”
Kisner provides speed from the backfield, having won numerous state titles in Class 1A at the state track and field meet.
“He’s a young man that has a lot of speed,” Oberle said about Kisner. “Probably the fastest guy we’ve had as far as straight-line speed. He’s done a good job. And he has to take a big leadership role offensively. He has to step up and be able to throw the ball a little better than we did. We have to be able to catch the ball a little better than we did. At the same time, he has to provide that leadership on the offensive side of the ball. I feel good about our offensive line up front. I think things are going well. We’ve created some depth in that position. I feel good, like we have four or five runnings backs that are talented, have some speed. We don’t necessarily have a thumper, but I think we have guys that we can get the ball in their hands and they can do good things for us.”
Engel has started multiple seasons on the line, and Oberle is counting on his leadership to aid the team this year.
“We’re a lot better this year,” Engel said. “We’re going to carry that momentum we had from last year at the very end. Hopefully we can continue to do that.”
Kisner led the way with 127 carries for 1,210 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2016, while Pfanenstiel added 112 carries for 703 yards and 10 TDs.
Victoria also has more depth than a year ago, with multiple players who can rotate in to different positions.
“We have a lot of people that can fill in,” Pfanenstiel said. “We’re deep this year. If one guy goes down, we have another guy coming in.”
While the Knights might have stumbled last year and didn’t make the playoffs, they still have a solid tradition to maintain.
The coach hopes the team can find that sense of powerhouse football that resulted in state titles just a few years ago. The school also has state titles from 1981 (2A), 1985 (2-1A), 1988 (2-1A) and 2006 (8MDII).
“You hope so,” Oberle said. “Obviously you want to use that tradition. Last year, we struggled some. I don’t know if that allure is still there. I don’t know if that’s still the case. Every year, it’s a different thing. I don’t think anybody is going to be afraid of us. We have to continue to build. Each year is a new year. We have to sustain and build what we want to build this year. Nobody is looking at what we did two years ago or four years ago or five years ago or 20 years ago when they were hanging banners. This is the year. We have to get better this year, and we have to build our own tradition.”