For the second straight season, it's a bit of rivalry week right off the bat for Black Hills State University and Chadron State College.
The two longtime opponents, with multiple storylines, will open the season Saturday at Lyle Hare Stadium in Spearfish. Kickoff is at 6 p.m.
To begin with, Eagles head coach Jay Long played and coached at Chadron State with Black Hills State head coach John Reiners. Long would move on to Spearfish to take over the Yellow Jackets as head coach and bring Reiners with him. When Long went back to Chadron State as the head coach, Reiners moved up as the Yellow Jacket head man.
It's also the season opener for two teams that seek a strong start in the always tough Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
"Opening game, two rivals, Chadron has a storied history and we're trying to make a little history of our own," Reiners said. "You have two local fan bases. We travel well down there, they travel well up here. It's just a good quality opponent in the RMAC that you are starting with out of the gate, one of the top three teams. We respect the heck out of them. You don't start out with any cupcakes, that's for sure."
Long said the Eagles, ranked third in the RMAC Preseason Poll, are anxious to get the season going.
"It is extremely exciting to play against Black Hills State in the first game of the year," he said. "When we go there we typically travel well, a good following of fans who go to that game. It will be a great atmosphere, and it will be great for our team and our fans."
The Eagles look to build off last season's 7-3 mark, while the Yellow Jackets aim to rebound from a disappointing 3-8 2018 campaign.
"We had a good spring and summer, so we want to build off of that," Reiners said.
It certainly will be time to build for the Yellow Jackets, who will go with a new quarterback, sophomore Andrew Tovar, a transfer from the University of Arizona.
"It was a great quarterback battle all fall throughout camp. We really didn't make the decision until midway last week," Reiners said. "But we wanted to start honing him in and getting reps with the ones. I thought Tyler Hammons did a great job, and we tell him he is one play away, and Tovar still has to show us what he can do in the game."
Black Hills State also has a new offensive coordinator in Mitch Dahlen.
Senior running back Payten Gilmore will also look to build off a big 2018 season in which he set the school single-game rushing record (248 yards) and finished with 793 on the year.
"Payten Gilmore is a kid who has worked very hard for us in the last couple of years," Reiners said. "He had a great off-season and a good fall camp. We're excited to see what he can do with the ball in his hands."
The Jackets also return all of their offensive line, which is critical for a new, young quarterback, Reiners said.
"We have about six guys who have playing experience and a redshirt freshman who will be getting in there, so we'll have a rotational deal with some guys," he said.
Reiners said he is also excited to see junior transfer Andre Renteria at running back, spelling Gilmore.
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"He's shown to be very explosive and electrifying guy in fall camp. I want to see what he can do when the lights come on."
The BHSU defense will have to be able to put pressure on the quarterback and be able to stop the run. Last year the Eagles ran for 284 yards against the Jackets.
"Our Achilles heel all year was stopping the run," Reiners said. "That is something Coach Kerr has worked on in the off-season, focusing on that."
Reiners said that transfer Kadim Philip is a player they lean heavily on up front. Linebacker Hunter Stephens has some returning experience, as does Josh Gurnaby in the secondary. Bailey Rosenstrauch and Sam Garcia will also provide depth in the backfield.
"The guys that have experience will be the guys we are depending on and leading this charge," Reiners said.
The Jackets, however, will be missing senior defensive lineman Jarrell Ganaway, who is out with an injury.
The Jackets will have to find a way to stop Chadron State quarterback Dalton Holst, who looks to be among the league's best this season. Last season, Holst passed for 2,603 yards and 22 touchdowns.
"We have to be able to get a pass rush to disrupt him and confuse him," Reiners said. "He's a quarterback who can pick you apart if you let him do it. He has shown that in the past against us and other teams. But our guys are excited and our defensive coordinator, Anthony Kerr, has a great game plan."
Long said that anytime you have a three-year starting quarterback, that definitely helps.
"It makes you feel like you are going to be in every game," Long said. "Dalton is a terrific ballplayer, a terrific leader. He had a great summer, and I know he is excited to come out and show that he is one of the top quarterbacks in the league."
The Eagles lost Kevin Coy Jr. (962 yards) to graduation, but Long is confident that he has some replacements in Stevann Brown, Priest Jennings and Elijah Myles. Brown and Myles combined for 1,030 yards last year.
"I think we have three running backs who have the potential to be one of the top backs in the conference. It will be fun," Long said. "Our backs are solid. We'll try to find which one is hot in the game and try to get the ball in their hands."
The Chadron State line will be young, but led by senior Jared Maciejczak, a Douglas High School graduate who is moving over to center.
"He's done an outstanding job this fall, and he has been a very vocal leader for our offensive line," Long said. "He has taken our young offensive linemen under his wing and has become another coach for us."
St. Thomas More graduate Cole Thurness will lead the way for the CSC receivers, after catching 46 passes last season for 701 yards and seven TDs.
Defensively, Long has a new coordinator in Craig Jersild.
"Looking at our defense, you will see some things that we have done over the years, but also you will see a new flavor with a new coordinator," he said. "On defense we have some players who can be some of the best in the conference. Brendan Hopkins, I think it is his time to show what we can do. At linebacker, Tyler Lewis was all-conference last year, and in the secondary, Deandre Barthwell has been hampered with injuries the past few seasons, but if he stays healthy, I see no reason that he won't be one of our top guys."