Will the state remain “blue” this year as St. Mary’s pursues a three-peat? Will we see the “red” rise again as Shanley tries to claim the crown for the first time since 2012? Or could we see another team challenge the Class AA powers?
We got our first taste of the new look 10-team Class AA division last year – and despite some of the long trips teams had to make, I felt that it was a pretty competitive division. In the end, St. Mary’s captured its fourth state title in five years with a 31-12 victory over Shanley.
In 2009, St. Mary’s and Shanley moved from Class AAA to Class AA, and the two have dominated the division by combining for seven state championships in those nine seasons. I think they’ll be the front runners again, but St. Mary’s might struggle at the beginning of the season after graduating a significant amount of impact players off last year’s roster.
This year is a great opportunity for Shanley to claim the Class AA state championship before returning to Class AAA next year with Jamestown. That move is expected to be finalized by the NDHSAA in September.
Top Teams in Class AA
Troy Mattern led Shanley to a perfect regular season record and the state championship game in his first season as head coach of the Deacons, but the result was another runner-up finish. It was the third time in four years that Shanley has felt disappointment at the Dakota Bowl.
This year, the Deacons look poised to reverse that trend. While St. Mary’s graduated a lot of its star players, Shanley returns quite a bit – including two quarterbacks with starting experience. Mattern says, “Our team speed will be the best I have ever coached.” That’s a scary thought for teams that will be lining up against the Deacons this fall.
The marquee matchup with St. Mary’s is scheduled for September 28 at Sid Cichy stadium – and you’ll be able to watch it live on Midco Sports Network!
Shanley has 15 starters returning, including two quarterbacks with starting experience: first team all-state selection Cade Busek and fellow senior Kaden Kueneman, who sustained an injury in week three last year. I’m intrigued to see how Mattern plans to use the two quarterbacks this season after he got both of them on the field in the playoffs last year once Kueneman returned from injury.
The Deacons have plenty of talent around the QB position, as well. Senior wide receiver and defensive back Haley Bucholz recently committed to play at the University of North Dakota. Bucholz recorded three rushing touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns last year, in addition to being one of the top shutdown defensive backs in the state.
I expect junior lineman Joe Kava to have a terrific season, too. He earned first team all-state honors last year and has some natural leadership traits – much like his brother, Jake, who’s currently in the middle of fall camp with North Dakota State.
2. St. Mary’s
No program has been more dominant in the state than St. Mary’s over the last five years. However, resting on past successes isn’t the motto for Dan Smrekar’s program, as they’ll try to overcome the loss of several impact players due to graduation. Cole Gendreau – who was a two-time all-state selection – ran that option attack offense incredibly well over the last few years and his spot will be critical to fill.
The good news for the Saints is that their toughest games will come at the midpoint of the season after some of the younger players have a few games under their belts. From week four to week eight, they play Devils Lake, Jamestown, Shanley, Watford City and Central Cass.
The Saints had eight players named all-state last year, but only one of those players returns. That’s linebacker and slot back Mason Spies, who will be called upon to lead an inexperienced defense.
Junior running back Joey Heinert showed explosiveness last year from the running back position. He finished the season with 440 yards and seven touchdowns. And Drew Dosch takes over at quarterback after the departure of Gendreau.
The Saints do have pretty good experience returning on the offensive and defensive lines – highlighted by 6’4” 270-pound Jayce Hoesel, who has picked up a long list of offers from NSIC programs.
3. Devils Lake
Devils Lake made the move from Class AAA to AA last year and was instantly competitive in the 10-team division. The Firebirds finished 7-4 overall and nearly could’ve had an eighth win if it wasn’t for Wahpeton pulling off a 48-46 victory in SIX overtimes.
The Firebirds lost their quarterback Jagger Miller to graduation, but return a pretty good amount of experience at key positions. The Firebirds rushing attack should lead the way again, and I think Jake Wateland’s team is poised for a return trip to the semifinal round, if not more.
First team all-state running back Joey Hornstein was a beast in the backfield last year as a junior for Devils Lake. He rushed for 1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns, while adding seven more scores through the air.
Luke Knowski is another player that is vital to the Firebirds success. Knowski not only rushed for 500 yards and five scores last year, but he was one of the team’s top defensive players, finishing with 60 tackles.
Last year, Jamestown got its first taste of playoff football since 2013. Unfortunately, it’s the taste of defeat that still lingers after the Blue Jays were defeated by Watford City 6-3 on their home field in the quarterfinal round. The Blue Jays are hoping to use that as motivation to finish strong in 2018.
Away from the field, a return to Class AAA is on the horizon for the Blue Jays. They’ll be joining Shanley in the move up to the top division after spending what will be two seasons at the Class AA level.
I think the Blue Jays have the talent to make a deep run this year. Keep in mind, their losses to Class AA powers Shanley and St. Mary’s were decided by only one touchdown last year. This team isn’t backing down from the best in the division, and I think confidence is flowing for a roster full of seniors and juniors.
Tommy Falk stepped in under center as a sophomore last season and played very well leading the offense. Falk finished with 777 passing yards and four touchdowns. I think we’ll see more of a balanced offense from the Blue Jays this season as Falk enters his junior year.
Plus, he has a great target in 5’11” 175-pound wide receiver Jared Kallenbach. Kallenbach made 16 catches for 278 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Senior fullback and linebacker Aaron Mack returns to lead the defense after making 74 tackles a year ago to earn second team all-state honors. Jamestown got it done with defense last year and with a large roster, they should be able to keep many of their players fresh.
5. Central Cass
After missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2013, the Squirrels look like a team ready to make the jump into contender status. Nathan Lutkemeier’s team rebounded from a five-game losing streak to begin the season by winning three of its final four games.
That momentum paired with a dazzling new turf and an abundance of varsity experience should have the community bursting with excitement to watch their football team on Friday nights this fall.
The Squirrels aerial attack has potential to be the best in Class AA this season. Senior quarterback Jonah Lietz passed for nearly 1,700 yards last year and 16 touchdowns. It certainly helps that he has a few tall targets coming back, as well.
6’3” Jacob Halverson and 6’4” JJ Albrecht should have no trouble catching passes over defenders this fall. Halverson was named first team all-state as a junior after catching 40 passes for 841 yards and seven touchdowns. Meanwhile, Albrecht racked up 242 receiving yards.
Senior running back Braeden Knutson is the top-returning rusher, after churning away for 533 yards and reaching the end zone five times in 2017.
Those are the playmakers, but everyone knows that it starts up front. Central Cass checks that box, too, with four starters returning on the line.
The Bubble Teams:
Wahpeton, Watford City
10 Players to Watch in Class AA:
- Sr. SB/LB – Mason Spies, St. Mary’s
- Sr. OL/DL - Jayce Hoesel, St. Mary’s
- Sr. WR/DB – Haley Bucholz, Shanley
- Sr. QB - Cade Busek, Shanley
- Jr. OL/DL - Joe Kava, Shanley
- Sr. RB/CB - Joey Hornstein, Devils Lake
- Sr. WR/DB - Jacob Halverson, Central Cass
- Sr. QB - Jonah Lietz, Central Cass
- Sr. OL/DL - Tucker Hermes, Wahpeton
- Sr. FB/LB - Aaron Mack, Jamestown