By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

Selecting players for any all-star team is never an easy task.

And doing so for the Garden City Telegram's Preseason Top 11 has presented the same challenge.

There will be plenty who are deserving of recognition, but only a select few will be more deserving and that's the difficulty in picking any all-star group.

However, there are a number of players who simply cannot be ignored.

One is senior Caleb Gifford, a 6-foot-1, 204 pound, running back/linebacker from Hugoton who will lead the Eagles into the season after a strong junior campaign.

"Offensively, Caleb provides consistency," Hugoton coach Clint Merritt said. "He doesn't say a whole lot, but we know he's going to get two to three yards every time he touches the ball."

Gifford proved it to be true as a junior when he rushed for 1,077 yards on just 151 carries, an average of just over seven yards. He also scored 11 touchdowns to pace the Eagles offense as they had their first winning season since 2005 by going 6-3.

Joining Gifford on The Telegram's elite preseason squad is his senior sidekick Bubba Beltz, who despite being just 5-9, 150-pounds, is one of the most fearless defenders in southwest Kansas. He was the lone junior to make The Telegram's Top 11 at the end of the 2008 campaign.

"Bubba is like a coach on the field for our secondary," Merritt said of his senior safety who registered six interceptions last year while making more than 100 tackles. "He recognizes down and distance, formations and tendencies so well that he is in the right place most of the time."

Beltz was the second leading rusher for the Eagles with over 400 yards and he and Gifford will provide a powerful 1-2 punch. Gifford became the school's all-time leading tackler in just three seasons last year and posted 72 solo tackles from his linebacker spot.

"Caleb will be around the football all night long," Merritt said. "Both of these young men have a bunch of on the field experience so they bring a level of confidence that we have not had before. They also understand the team concept very well and understand that it takes a team to be successful."

The rest of the best:

TATE HOUSHOLDER, Syracuse (6-3, 175, sr., quarterback/linebacker): The senior had an impressive junior campaign for the Bulldogs.

Housholder rushed for 767 yards and passed for another 707 yards while averaging 7.4 yards a carry. He was an honorable mention All-Area Top 11 selection as a junior, and will have fellow teammate Tate Lampe (6-2, 265) blocking for him up front.

TATE LAMPE, Syracuse (6-2, 265, sr., offensive/defensive tackle): Lampe was an all-Hi-Plains League selection on both offense and defense. He had 40 tackles and recovered two fumbles in just eight games.

"Having two tremendous young men such as the two Tate's is even more of a bonus," Syracuse coach Chris Pollart said. "They both have an outstanding work ethic and do the little things right every play. They both bring a lot of experience to the team."

JORDAN NEMECHEK, GREELEY COUNTY (6-4, 190, tight end/defensive end): A year ago, Nemechek played offensive guard and defensive end for the Jackrabbits. Coach Greg Brown, though, has moved his standout to a receiver position (tight end) to utilize his blocking and receiving skills.

"He has very good physical skills and his speed and athleticism are good," Brown said. "He is very hard to block on the defensive side and he has good quickness and a good eye for the ball. His 6-4 frame and the speed he has will make him a good target."

Brown, though, said it was blocking that was the strongest part of Nemechek's ability.

"He's very quick off the ball and uses his leverage well," Brown said. "He, along with our other seniors, should give us solid leadership this year."

CODY BERNBECK, GARDEN CITY (6-2, 175, jr., quarterback): Coming into the 2008 season as an untested sophomore, Bernbeck won the Buffaloes' starting quarterback job and posted solid numbers in helping the team to a 4-4 record. In his varsity campaign Bernbeck completed 59-of-107 passes (52.2 percent) for 976 yards in the run-oriented offense utilized by the Buffs in 2008. He also rushed 107 times for 433 yards. This year, in the new spread offense implemented by coach Mike Smith, Bernbeck could flourish by utilizing both his quickness running and a strong passing arm and a year of experience under his belt.

"He's bigger and stronger and a lot more confident," GCHS coach Mike Smith said. "He knows that this is kind of his team."

A year ago, Bernbeck had to win the starting job in preseason camp. This time, though, the job is his.

"Last year, he started out the year not knowing... but it's nice to have your quarterback back," Smith said. "Cody is just like a coach on the field. He corrects me some times."

CALVIN ERVEN, Scott City (6-2, 215, sr., running back/linebacker): One of nine returning starters for the Beavers who went all the way to the Class 3A state quarterfinals before losing a heartbreaker to Garden Plain, 20-17, Erven will anchor a defense that was more than stingy in the closing part of the season. The Beavers gave up just six points or less in six of their final seven games and held Holcomb's potent offense scoreless in a 19-0 first round playoff victory. From his middle linebacker position, coach Glenn O'Neil expects Erven to shine in his senior year.

"He's been elected one of our captains and he has just worked tremendously hard since last season," O'Neil said. "Calvin and the other seniors are stepping up and done a super job of being our leaders."

ALEX SWAN, Scott City (6-1, 170, sr., wide receiver/running back/defensive back): Mr. Versatile would be one way of describing Swan as he enters his senior season. As a junior, he had 22 catches for 287 yards and rushed for 606 yards and scored eight touchdowns in the Beavers' "Run by Committee" ground attack. His value to the 2008 team came when he was selected to the Mid State Activities Assocation all-league team while also being one of four juniors named to The Telegram's second squad Top 11.

"Alex has a lot of different ways of contributing to our team and we want to put him in those positions to allow that to happen," O'Neil said. "He's a hard worker, dedicated and a good leader (selected as a captain for the Beavers, too). "We might also see him taking some snaps out of the shotgun to take advantage of his running skills."

WATSON McKINNEY, Wichita County (6-0, 170, sr., quarterback/defensive back): McKinney thrived in first year coach Gary Campas' wide-open offense in 2008. He passed for 1,790 yards and has his favorite receiver, Steven Harkness, returning. McKinney will also be pegged as one of the Indians' starting defensive backs.

"With Watson and Steve back at our skill positions, I'm confident that we can continue to improve our program."

MASON HIBBARD, Sublette (6-0, 175, sr., running back/defensive back): Hibbard found himself as a wide receiver for the Larks as a junior, but coach Steve Simpson has moved the speedster to running back, providing Sublette with one of the fastest backfields in Class 2A. Hibbard was fourth in the Class 2A state track meet 100-meter dash and seventh in the 200.

"He's worked a lot in the offseason and gotten stronger," Simpson said. "He's a tough kid and I think he's got a chance to have a great season."

Simpson said he also expects Hibbard to be much improved at his defensive back spot as well.

"I think he's just got good football instincts," Simpson said. "I'll be interested to see how he adjusts to the change but I think he's going to be alright."

AYDAN KINNEY, Garden City (5-11, 205, sr., fullback/linebacker): Kinney registered most of his playing time for the Buffs on the defensive side of the ball as a junior. Coach Mike Smith's ability to platoon the majority of his team limited Kinney's offensive playing time. He did carry the ball 28 times for 118 yards and that number is sure to rise in the spread offense where Kinney is likely to see more carries. Defensively, he registered 28 solo tackles for the Buffs.