USC football practice

Senior running back Zach Niebuhr scored 27 touchdowns last season, leading United South Central to its first state tournament game.

WELLS — You might look at season-opening victories over Faribault Bethlehem Academy and Mayer Lutheran as key reasons why the United South Central football team was so successful last season.

But coach Brandon Neseth said the program’s first state-tournament appearance may have gotten a bigger boost in 2017, when the Rebels went only 5-5.

“We had a lot of juniors on that team, and they exceeded expectations that season,” Neseth said. “We knew that we returned a lot of players, and that set the stage for last season. We won those two games to start, and we were all set up.”

The Rebels have another talented team this season, so it would be no surprise if the team again challenged for a state-tournament berth.

“I think our expectations were high last season, but I don’t think anybody thought we could go 10-0 to start,” senior Zach Niebuhr said. “The more success we had, the more people started showing up at our games. We just kept it going. It was crazy.”

Niebuhr set a program record with 1,648 yards rushing, which is also a career record for USC. He scored 27 touchdowns.

“He can do it all,” Neseth said.

Ethan Dallman and Brevan Linder are the backup running backs.

Quarterback Isaac Meyer passed for 1,050 yards and seven touchdowns, and his improvement might be key to a more dynamic offense, taking some of the pressure off of Niebuhr.

The veteran offensive line is led by tackles Carson Wegner and Keagan Meyer, who were both named to the all-district team. Jake Billings and Micah Hamson also have varsity experience.

A.J. Kloos, a 6-foot-4 receiver with two seasons of varsity experience, could have a bigger role in the offense, along with Riley Staloch and Mark Bushlack.

“At the end of the year, the coaches asked us what we would change,” Niebuhr said. “We talked about having more pizzazz in the offense so they’ve really upped that.”

In the defensive line, Linder, just 160 pounds, set the program record for sacks with eight. Kloos and Meyer will play on the ends.

Niebuhr and Hamson are the starting linebackers. Bushlack, a defensive back, tied the program record with six interceptions last season, and Dallman.

“We have a strong senior class, with seven starters back on defense,” Neseth said.

The season ended with a thud, losing 42-0 to Blooming Prairie in the playoffs. It didn’t diminish the optimism and excitement for this season.

“We saw how good we could be last year, and I think we’ll be even better,” Niebuhr said. “I think if our attitudes are right, we’ll be really good.”

Neseth said his team shows a lot more confidence than in the past, born of last season’s success. With so many pieces back, and a more aggressive offensive system, it seems that expectations are high again.

“I’m concerned about depth, but a lot of schools in Class A are in a similar spot,” he said. “These kids have had some success in the younger programs so I think everybody has been looking at this group as the year to do it.”

The Rebels’ season begins Friday against Fillmore Central at Harmony.

Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.

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