It didn't take long for Brookfield Central football to prove it was one of the top teams in the state.
With talent all over the field on both sides of the ball, the Lancers got off to a 9-0 start en route to finishing 10-2 with a share of their second straight Greater Metro Conference title and a trip to Level 3 of the WIAA playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Brookfield Central was well-represented on Now Newspapers All-Suburban football team, as 15 players received honors, including first-team picks junior running back Zach Heckman, senior wide receiver/defensive back/returner Thomas Gibson and junior linebacker Reggie Jennings.
Gibson does it all
There were few players who had an impact on their team in more ways than Gibson, a stellar athlete who was named the Greater Metro's Offensive Back of the Year and first-team All Conference at wide receiver, defensive back and all-purpose.
"I knew we needed me defensively," Gibson said. "In the offseason, I really worked hard at getting better at defense, with coverages and stuff like that. I was really excited for my senior year because that's really when you can take over and lead the team. I knew there was a shot there that I was going to be able to play both ways, so I just wanted to take it and run with it."
Gibson quickly developed a strong rapport with sophomore quarterback Drew Leszczynski and finished with 50 catches for 883 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also was named first-team All State as a returner after averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return, including a kickoff return for a touchdown against Brookfield East on Sept. 15.
"Right when he got the starting job before the first game, we just clicked," Gibson said of Leszczynski. "We clicked throughout the entire season. Against Hartford, I slowed down on a route because I thought I was too far, and I didn't think he could throw it that far. I came back to the huddle and he yelled at me. After that, we just connected. I knew wherever I was on the field, he would get me the ball. I just went and made plays."
Heckman grabs reins
While his name might not have been known to those outside the Brookfield Central program, the Lancers knew exactly what they had in Heckman.
After spending his sophomore season on the junior varsity team, Heckman sensed an opportunity to become the starting running back heading into his junior year and put in the work to make it happen.
"After last season, coach (Jed) Kennedy made it clear to me that would be my role for the next year," Heckman said. "I really knew that I had to make a lot of gains in the offseason in terms of putting on muscle. I had to make sure I was in the best possible position when the season came around."
Heckman rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 of Brookfield Central's 12 games, topping the 200-yard mark three times and scoring multiple touchdowns in eight games. He finished with 1,753 yards and 24 touchdowns on 290 carries, averaging 24.2 attempts and 146.1 yards per game.
"We knew within our team that Zach was something else and nobody had seen it yet, because he was a JV running back the year before," Gibson said. "He just runs hard. He gets hit and keeps driving his feet. He will get ball after ball after ball. He will run five to 10 times in a row but has that fire every single play and somehow does not get tired."
A defensive force
There are few players in Wisconsin with the physical gifts of Jennings. Combine the tools with a strong work ethic and the results is a special player.
Jennings was named the Greater Metro's Defensive Back of the Year and earned first-team All State honors, along with All-Region and All-Conference accolades. A player already offered a scholarship by the University of Wisconsin, Jennings finished with 73 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, six sacks and a forced fumble.
"I'm honored to have those, but all those awards I've received are team awards," Jennings said. "I wouldn't be able to do it without my team."
Jennings had a monster game in Brookfield Central's 43-14 win over Brookfield East on Sept. 15, recording three sacks, five tackles for a loss and seven total stops. He had at least six tackles in nine of 12 games.
"He's going to go big," Gibson said. "He's not a cocky guy. He's not a guy that thinks he's better than everyone else. He's a humble guy. Going against him on offense, how he can get to the flat so quick and how athletic he is, it is ridiculous. It is crazy. He is so athletic. He's our best player. He's going to have an amazing senior year."
Offensive lineman Sam Ockwood and quarterback Drew Leszczynski were named to the high-honorable mention portion of the All-Suburban Team, and coach Jed Kennedy received the same standing for the second straight year.
"Everybody wants to play so hard for him," Gibson said of Kennedy. "He's like a father to all of us. He takes us in like we are his sons. He would do anything for us. When he came in, the workout program got really strict. We didn't have a guy under 80 percent on lifting from summer through the school year.
"He brought that mentality that we needed to get better in the offseason to be better in the season. Obviously, it worked. He'll get in your face when you do something wrong, but it is because he cares about you."
In addition, All-Suburban honorable-mention choices included wide receiver Jimmy Rodgers, tight end Jacob Ozolins, offensive linemen CJ Heaney, Cody Moua, kicker Parker Jensen, defensive linemen Blake Fehrmann and Jordan Hoehnen, linebackers Nick Leszczynski and Robert Ravanelli and defensive back Jaiden Banda.