Once again, some of the best high school football talent the state of Nebraska has to offer will be on display one last time at the 55th annual Nebraska Shrine Bowl.
Highlighted by four-star linebacker recruit Josh Banderas of Lincoln Southwest and six other Husker walk-ons, the all-star game features 15 players who will go on to play college ball this fall.
Including Banderas, Omaha North's Casey Sayles (Ohio) and Nathan Bazata (Iowa) of Howells-Dodge, three of the state's five Division I recruits will participate in this year's Shrine Bowl.
The game will also feature four FCS level recruits and three players who will play at Iowa Western Community College next season.
There will be a few notable absences, though, as LSU commit Christian Lacouture of Lincoln Southwest was a spring enrollee with the Tigers and Colorado State commit Jake Schlager of McCook decided he wanted a week off between the state track meet and when moves to Fort Collins, Colo., in June.
Even so, Shrine Bowl officials are thrilled about bringing together the state's best talent for the game.
"It's the biggest reason why we moved the game from late-July into the first part of June," said Shrine Bowl president Dave MacDonald. "It actually was developed through talking to the University of Nebraska in trying to understand why we weren't able to get those players to play, and it was explained to us that their college careers were going to start for summer school, and the off-season conditioning for them was going to start immediately in June. So we moved it the first Saturday in June.
"We're happy with that decision so far, and I think this year's team selection, with all the players that we do have coming, is a great indicator that we've probably made the right decision to move it, and that's probably where we're going to keep it."
The future Huskers on the North team include tight end Erik Evans of Waverly and punter Jordan Bellar and tight end Connor Ketter of Norfolk Catholic, while the South has Banderas, fullback Harrison Jordan of Omaha Westside, wide receiver Spencer Lewis of Papillion-LaVista and defensive back Zach Stovall of Bellevue East.
Even though Banderas has played in a number of high profile camps, combines and all-star games over the course of his high school career, he said he wanted to be a part of the Shrine Bowl because of the opportunity to interact with the kids at the Shriner's Hospitals for Children and also to get a chance to team up with guys he'd played against the past four years.
"It's nice to be able to play for the kids," Banderas said. "To get to go (to the Shriner's Hospital), we did something like that San Antonio (for the Army All-American game) where we went to visit this kids, and it really made their whole day. So to be able to do that again is an awesome experience. And I know these guys from around the state, and it will just be fun to play with them and against them."
Whether or not Banderas will actually play in the game is another story, however. Because of the off-season shoulder surgery he had following his senior season at Southwest, he may not be cleared for contact in time to fully participate in the week of practice or the game.
"We're kind of debating it," Banderas said. "I'm a little ahead of schedule on it, and the day of the game is the day I actually get cleared for full-contact and everything. So we'll just see where it goes and play it by ear.
"It's just kind of a shady future on that. We don't know yet."
Other players in the game worth mentioning are Northern Iowa offensive line commit Lee Carhart of Omaha Creighton Prep, North Dakota State linebacker commit Nick DeLuca of Millard North, and South Dakota commits Matt Klein of Scottsbluff and Colin Mertlik of Blair.
The Shrine Bowl will also feature the state's top three quarterbacks. Isaac Aakre of Millard North, who was named the 2012 Gatorade Nebraska Football Player of the Year, and Zach Martin of Omaha North will suit up for the North squad, while Lincoln Southeast's Najee Jackson play for the South.
Martin and Jackson are both set to play at Iowa Western next season, and they will be joined at IWCC by the South running back Devin Washington of Lincoln Southeast.
There will be a significant change to the game this year, though, as for the first time ever the Shrine Bowl will not be played at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. A new NCAA rule now forbids Division I schools from hosting high school all-star games at their facilities, and so this year's Shrine Bowl will now be held at the University of Nebraska-Kearney's Cope Stadium at Foster Field.
The Shrine Bowl signed a two-year contract with the city of Kearney, so will be played at UNK next summer as well. MacDonald said the Shrine Bowl would then evaluate where the game would be played after that.
"The NCAA decided two years ago that they would not allow non-scholastic sporting events on Division-I campuses," MacDonald said. "The rule, it was explained to us from the NCAA, was that is was to curb some recruiting violations or potential violations that were going on. So even though it didn't affect Nebraska directly or our game, unfortunately we're an offshoot of that. We wouldn't have been able to play last year's game there, but we already had a signed contract with the University, so the NCAA allowed us to play last year's game there. But then we had to find a new venue for next year's game."
Practice for the Shrine Bowl will begin on Friday, May 24, and like previous years the North team will practice at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln and the South at Doane College in Crete. For those players going to play at the next level, the first five-week session of college summer classes begin the following Monday after the game on June 10.