Like he had many times before, Riley Gross was building offensive game plans for Gretna’s two biggest football games of the season – a Class A state semifinal matchup against Omaha North, and then the final at Memorial Stadium against Omaha Westside.
The Dragons’ offensive coordinator wanted an established offensive mind – a coach who thinks like he does – to go over the schemes with. Who better than Gross’ high school coach from Fremont Bergan, Ron Beacom?
The current Neligh-Oakdale coach was more than happy to help. He even sat in the coaches box for both wins last season, including 7-3 against Westside in Lincoln.
A year later, Gretna is back in the Class A final (7:15 p.m. Monday), but Beacom won’t be available to help. He’s got his own plans Monday. His Neligh-Oakdale team will play Clarkson-Leigh in the Class D-1 state championship game earlier in the day at 2:45 p.m.
“It was really cool to have him there last year through that journey,” Gross said. “(He) can’t do that this year unfortunately, but obviously I’m sure he’s OK with that.”
The past few years have been very rewarding for the two – Beacom building the Neligh-Oakdale program, and Gross growing as an OC for one of the state’s top programs. The other rewarding part? They’re tutoring the state’s two most dynamic offensive playmakers.
Teaching two of the best
Gretna, of course, has Zane Flores. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Oklahoma State recruit with quick feet and a cool demeanor may very well be the best pure passer to ever come out of the state.
Aiden Kuester, simply, is a gamer. The 6-0, 190-pounder is posting numbers at Neligh-Oakdale that nobody has seen before, recently setting Nebraska all-class and national records for career total yards.
Both will be on the big stage Monday at Memorial Stadium, and two of their biggest fans couldn’t be prouder.
“Not only are they outstanding athletes, but from what I understand about Zane and the same is true about Aiden, I think they’re just great kids,” Beacom said. “They’re easy to root for because they do things the right way.”
Flores’ place in history
Flores earlier this season set the Class A record for career passing yards (he’s at 8,749 right now). This year, he has completed 214-of-322 throws for 2,703 yards and 28 touchdowns (and just four picks) for the unbeaten Dragons.
With Flores, Gretna can expand the playbook, a delight for any play-caller.
“As an offensive coordinator, to have someone like Zane for four years and be able to go out every Friday night and watch him execute, it’s pretty neat to have the whole playbook at your disposal knowing that there is not much he can’t do,” Gross said.
Flores punches it in on a 4th and goal.
— Mike Sautter (@MikeSautter_) November 12, 2022
Gross began working with Flores when the talented QB was an eighth grader. Flores had incredible arm motion then, Gross says, so there wasn’t much fine-tuning with the throwing mechanics. Gross found other ways to help grow Flores into a Division I quarterback.
“The one thing that him and I have worked hard on throughout the years is just the footwork,” Gross said. “That goes all the way back to Bergan and the footwork that Coach Beacom taught me when he was my coach.”
Kuester’s place in history
If you think Gross enjoys calling plays with Flores, imagine what it’s been like for Beacom to coach Kuester.
The Neligh-Oakdale senior is having one of the best eight-man careers in state history. Earlier this season, Kuester broke Scott Frost’s 30-year-old record (11,095) for career total offense. He’s well over 12,000 and counting.
????Record Broken???? Congratulations Aiden Kuester for becoming the new all-time national leader in career yards in 8-man football with 11,758 yards!@AidenKuester | Neligh-Oakdale HS, NE pic.twitter.com/uitcXDc7b6
— Hudl (@Hudl) November 8, 2022
Kuester’s senior season has been his best. He’s second in the state, regardless of class, with 2,846 passing yards. He’s also second, regardless of class, in rushing with 2,031 yards. He has racked up 74 touchdowns – 27 passing and 47 running. Oh, and he’s the team’s leading tackler at 184 stops.
Kuester threw for 359 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for nearly 200 and three more scores in the Warriors’ state semifinal win against North Platte St. Pat’s. Now he has Neligh-Oakdale playing for its first state championship, and the communities are buzzing.
What’s it like calling plays with Kuester running the offense?
“It’s just been a joy,” Beacom said. “Not only is Aiden an outstanding football player and obviously he’s accomplished a lot in his career, but he’s just a great human being.
“The big thing about Aiden is it’s never been about Aiden. He’s just super-good about bringing everybody around him along with him and making them better. He’s put up some pretty crazy numbers and he’s been noticed for that, but we never once sat down and said, ‘Hey, how can we improve upon these numbers.’ It’s always been how do we win the next one and how do we ultimately get to the state finals.”
Kuester has posted freakish numbers, but there’s nothing freakish about how he approaches the game. He loves watching film and has a great feel for the game. It reminds Beacom of another player he coached.
“He’s kind of like Riley in that he’s a student of the game,” Beacom said. “He’s always trying to look at things a little more. He understands the game to the point where he’s always looking for an edge.”
Running the systems
It’s no accident that Kuester and Flores will be playing in back-to-back games at Memorial Stadium. They pilot offenses by two coaches who are well-versed in running the spread attack.
Beacom was like most high school coaches when he was named Fremont Bergan’s coach in 2000. Power run game. Play inside a phone booth. But by 2007, Beacom began implementing a spread offense and he had the right quarterback for it – Riley Gross.
Gross was the Knights’ starting signal-caller for three seasons, leading the school to state runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2010.
“The thing that most people might not realize is I think Coach Beacom deserves a lot of credit for the evolution of the spread offense in the state of Nebraska,” Gross said. “He was willing to think outside the box and start running a spread offense when many schools regardless of class weren’t necessarily willing to make that change at that point.”
Gross has infused the same offensive concepts at Gretna. When the Dragons were in Class B, they were bigger than most teams and outmuscled foes. That changed when the school moved to Class A in 2018, so Gretna coaches believed playing in space gave the team its best shot at early success.
The timing couldn’t have been better with Flores coming up through the program.
“The base playbook that we run at Gretna is the base playbook that Coach Beacom taught me at Bergan,” Gross said.
‘Friend and mentor’
Gross and Beacom stay in communication often – about once a week, Gross said. Beacom has had a major influence on the fifth-year Gretna OC’s life.
“First and foremost, he played a large role in why I got into coaching and education,” Gross said. “I consider him a close friend and mentor. I think the biggest thing he taught me was how to see the field and how to see the game. The way he taught me how to see the field is the same way that I teach Zane how to see the field.”
Beacom saw a future coach when Gross was in high school at Archbishop Bergan.
“It was obvious,” said Beacom, who coached at Bergan for 18 seasons before taking over at Neligh-Oakdale. “Riley is a student of the game. He watched a lot of film, he always asked questions, he always wanted to know the why.”
Gross learned a lot of X’s and O’s playing for Beacom, but he also took to his mentor’s emphasis on details, something that is entrenched in his teachings of Flores at Gretna.
Gretna’s wide receivers coach, Travis Brown, also played for Beacom at Bergan.
The final drive
Kuester and Flores have take thousands of game snaps, and an endless number of practice reps.
The August heat. The pre-snap reads. The arm strength. The game-winning drives. The leadership. It all has gotten them to the pinnacle of high school football — playing for a state title at Memorial Stadium.
Gretna gets Omaha Westside in a rematch of last year’s final.
The two quarterbacks will take a few more snaps for the respective schools, with an opportunity to add to the record books. To expand their high school legacies. Above all, they want to win for the communities.
“For as good as both of those guys are, they are even better ambassadors for our game, and it’s only fitting that those two get to finish in Memorial Stadium,” Gross said.