ND Class AAA Preview
It's always interesting to see where the strength of the state is in Class AAA. Last year, we saw West Fargo produce one of the most dominant seasons in recent history – but the depth of the west still proved to be stronger.
The top four teams from the west finished 11-7 overall (including playoffs) against the east, with six of those losses coming to the same team: West Fargo. As you'll read below, I think we'll see the state championship trophy going back to the WDA in 2018.
Top Teams in Class AAA
With a three-year starter at quarterback and a solid group of seniors returning from a team that gave West Fargo its closest game last year, I’m confident that the Demons are the team to beat in 2018.
Mark Gibson’s team averaged 35 points per game last year and has some serious offensive talent that opposing teams are going to have a tough time slowing down. On the other side of the ball, the veteran defensive line will need to be stout because there will be inexperience behind them. Bismarck can win shootouts during the regular season, but it gets a lot tougher when the weather starts to turn come playoff time.
All-WDA quarterback Will Madler is entering his third year as the starting quarterback for the Demons and that familiarity will be a huge advantage. Madler completed 99 of 137 passes for nearly 1,400 yards last year. With Madler’s experience, you can expect the Demons to be able to throw in a few more wrinkles in the playbook to take advantage of his knowledge of the offense.
He has some good help returning at receiver with Joe Jahner and Matt Trolliey back for their senior seasons. Isaiah Olsen will be the primary running back after bursting onto the scene late last year with the injury to Jalen Sprecher. Olsen rushed for a trio of touchdowns in the state quarterfinal game against Fargo South and got the start against West Fargo in the state semifinal round.
I expect seniors Chase Dockter (OL/DL) and Canyon Stonecipher (TE/DE) to play pivotal roles in the trenches.
The Patriots feel like they let an opportunity slip away last year. They had their sights set on a third consecutive state championship, but dropped the state semifinal game against Minot on the snowy turf at the MDU Resources Community Bowl. While I don’t think that loss alone will serve as motivation, I do think the standard at Century is to compete for a state championship every season.
Like most coaches this time of year, Century head coach Ron Wingenbach has his concerns. “We have a lot of question marks as we enter this season,” he says, “but we’re optimistic that we can build off last year’s regional championship, and with a lot of hard work in the off season, can achieve our goals.” I like the leadership he has with multi-sport standout Cade Feeney under center and University of North Dakota-commit Tanner Thorsness anchoring the offensive and defensive lines.
The Feeney name is a familiar one in Bismarck, and Cade Feeney is the new man in charge of the Century offense after serving in a backup role behind two-time first team all-state selection Jakob Olson last season. It doesn’t seem to matter the sport – Feeney thrives in whatever he happens to be playing. As a sophomore, he was a key contributor to both the basketball and baseball state championships for the Patriots last school year. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do as the full-time quarterback for Century.
Senior all-state lineman Tanner Thorsness committed to play football at North Dakota over the summer. Thorsness finished with 58 tackles and nine sacks last year, and is the Patriots lone returning starter on the offensive line.
Nathan Kraft returns for his senior season after leading the team in rushing as a junior with 616 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Kraft is a bruising back that’s not afraid to truck defenders on Friday nights.
Will this be the year that Sheyenne finally gets over the hump and beats rival West Fargo? It won’t take long for us to get that answer. The two rivals will square off on September 7, the EDC opener for both teams. I’m interested to see how healthy both teams will be doing after some tough matchups against the west to start.
With all that being said, I do think Sheyenne has the best team in the EDC this season. Head coach Jeremy Newton knows that talent alone won’t win many games though. “We have some returning starters at key spots, and if we can continue to develop and stay healthy, we will have some success,” Newton says.
Sheyenne will be able to score plenty of points, but the defense will need to stand tall come playoff time. The Mustangs defense held opponents to 20 points or less seven times last year, but allowed 44+ points in the team’s three losses – including 66 points to Minot in the home playoff game.
It’s always a huge benefit for the coaching staff when the quarterback returns in high school football. That’s the case for the Mustangs, with the offense under Parker Sander’s direction for the second consecutive season. Sander passed for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns last year to go with 400 yards rushing and seven more scores.
Oddly enough – despite graduating the EDC’s leading rusher in Jason Gaulrapp – the Mustangs have the top three returning rushers in the conference in senior Hunter Hoffner, junior Nathan Goldade and Sander. I liked what I saw from Hoffner and Goldade in the option attack last year for Sheyenne.
Senior wide receiver and defensive back Caden Jastram is another weapon for the Mustangs on both sides of the ball. The All-EDC selection caught 17 passes for 369 yards and six touchdowns last year.
Juniors Zach Rodgers and Tommy Bright are also a couple of names to watch, especially on defense. Rodgers registered eight tackles for loss last season.
4. West Fargo
If last year’s theme for West Fargo football was dominance, this year’s theme might revolve around the word patience. The defending Class AAA state champions have undergone a roster overhaul after graduating 18 of 22 starters from last year’s roster.
Losing players to graduation is nothing new in high school football, but it’s not every year that you have a senior class as talented as the Packers had in 2017. The first order of business will be replacing ND Gatorade Player of the Year Andy Gravdahl at quarterback. Gravdahl was a dual threat weapon that nobody seemed to have an answer for last season as he passed for 2,265 yards and 22 touchdowns, while adding 640 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
I discussed above all the talent the Packers lost from last season, but the cupboards at West Fargo High aren’t exactly bare either.
West Fargo will have two future Division I players on the roster this season, after senior tight end/linebacker Luke Lennon and senior lineman EJ Langstaff verbally committed to play for the University of North Dakota next fall. The 6’5”, 210-pound Lennon will move from tight end to more of a H-back role in the Packers offense. He’s a valuable blocker and garnered all-state honors as a linebacker. Langstaff is a 6’5”, 240-pound lineman that tallied 50 tackles and a pair of sacks during his junior season. He’ll become a two-way player this season, adding offensive line to his duties.
The new quarterback for the Packers will be senior Cooper Sahli – who’s more of a pocket passer as opposed to Gravdahl’s dual-threat style. Head coach Jay Gibson says the Packers will alter the playbook to take advantage of Sahli’s strengths. You can expect juniors Joel McIntosh and Michael Johnson to get the bulk of the carries in the backfield.
5. Fargo South
Tyler Kosel led Fargo South to a 6-4 record and a trip to the playoffs in his first season as head coach. But a new season brings with it a fair amount of challenges. Seven players from that 2017 team signed to play college football back in February, so you can expect some young talent to be thrown into the fire early in the season.
The Bruins won four straight to open the season last year, but lost four of its last six, including a quarterfinal playoff game at Bismarck. I expect Fargo South to be in the playoff mix this year, but it’ll rely on how much Kosel is able to get out of his inexperienced players at the talent positions.
The Bruins have had a quarterback battle going throughout the entire offseason between seniors Wyatt Hanson and Drew Meckle. Kosel seems to be confident with both after what he saw from 7-on-7 tournaments throughout the summer.
Whoever gets the nod at quarterback will have a Division I target to throw to in senior tight end/defensive end Dawson Weisenberger. Weisenberger has great size (6’4”, 230 lbs) and hands, making him one of the toughest players to defend in the state. He caught 26 passes for 346 yards and five touchdowns last season. He had 46 tackles, six sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss, as well.
Senior running back and linebacker Brody Herrick provides South with a physical presence in the backfield on both sides of the ball. Herrick and fellow senior Carter Morrau each finished in the top eight in tackles in the EDC last year.
I also liked what I saw from some of the young talent of the Bruins in the Rise Above The Region 7-on-7 tournament. Juniors Bless Flomo, John Farr and Jamal Spiyee caught my eye, along with sophomore Sibomana Enock. I think all four of those players have the potential to put up some good numbers this fall.
The Bubble Teams:
10 Players to watch in Class AAA:
- Sr. QB Will Madler, Bismarck
- Sr. RB/DB Isaiah Olsen, Bismarck
- Sr. OL/DL Tanner Thorsness, Century
- Sr. TE/DE Jaden Klabo, Davies
- Sr. QB Jesse Forknell, Davies
- Sr. TE/DE Dawson Weisenberger, Fargo South
- Sr. WR/DB Caden Jastram, Sheyenne
- Sr. OL/DL EJ Langstaff, West Fargo
- Sr. TE/LB Luke Lennon, West Fargo
- Sr. OL/DL Brandon Steinhauer, West Fargo