Will a loaded region four produce another state champion? Or, will the teams wear each other down before the postseason begins?
Last year’s 9-man season started as a guessing game with many of the perennial powers bolting for the Class A division. Kidder County went from off the radar to making a big splash capturing the program’s first state championship. Region four made up half of the field in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs a year ago with Beach, Grant County-Flasher, Linton-HMB and Kidder County each picking up first-round wins. That’s why you’ll see a familiar trend in my rankings below.
The last time Linton-HMB made the Dakota Bowl, Tanner Purintun was the senior quarterback for the Lions. But a knee injury sustained in the semifinal round prevented Purintun from playing in the 2011 Class A state championship game, which ended in a loss to Stanley/Powers Lake. Now Purintun’s goal is to get Linton-HMB back to the Dakota Bowl, only this time as its head coach. The former Bismarck High assistant enters his 2nd year at the helm after guiding the Lions to a 9-2 record and a state semifinal trip in 2019. The Lions were close to making it an all-region four state championship but eventually fell in double overtime to Cavalier, 30-28. This year the team will have its hands' full playing in the toughest region in 9-man, but I think the Lions will be the best of the bunch and hoist a state trophy for the first time since 2003.
All-state senior quarterback and defensive back Lucas Schumacher returns to lead the offense. The 6’2”, 190 lb standout passed for 1,176 yards and 15 TDs last season while adding 10 rushing scores. On defense, he racked up 40 tackles and a trio of interceptions. Schumacher is an elite athlete, which helped push him over the edge as my preseason 9-man player of the year. He’s the leader of this squad and it certainly helps to have a former Linton QB as his head coach. The ground game will be solid again with 5’9”, 170 lb senior RB/LB Trey Jacob toting the rock. Jacob rumbled for 1,100 yards and 11 TDs as a junior while collecting 100 tackles and 2 picks on defense. Look for seniors Rafe Kalama (6’2” 200 lb TE/DE) and Nathan Schatz (6’0” 230 lb OL/DL) to anchor the offensive and defensive lines.
2. Kidder County
We haven’t had a repeat champion in 9-man since Cavalier went back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. Kidder County looks to end that drought this year, but it won’t be easy after losing some talented seniors and the program’s head coach. Longtime Assistant Dave Silbernagel takes over for the reigning 9-man coach of the year Jack Biesterfeld who decided to step down following the program’s state championship. The cupboard isn’t bare by any means for Silbernagel with a good cast of starters returning including senior quarterback Jonah Harter. The Wolves also return plenty of guys with starting experience on the offensive and defensive lines. It’s the running back position that has the most question marks as they try to fill the void left behind by last year’s all-state senior duo of Parker Hager and Isaiah Harter, who were also terrific on defense.
QB Jonah Harter showed how clutch of a player he is when he passed for two touchdowns and rushed for two more in the team’s Dakota Bowl victory over Cavalier for the state championship. This year, they’ll need him to pick up right where he left off while playing that tough region schedule. Payton Cauthon got stronger and stronger as the year wore on. He reached the endzone twice in that state title game and showed some impressive skills in the open field. Junior Jacob Biegler should also be a factor in that backfield. On defense, the linebackers return as Tristan Patzner and Blake Pfaff give Coach Silbernagel a reliable duo to lead that unit. Patzner finished last season with 102 tackles, which ranked second on the team.
Putting Cavalier in the 9-man top five has become an annual tradition over the past decade. Since 2010, the Tornadoes have finished with two or fewer losses in all but one year. Throw out that down year in 2018 (6-4), and you have a record of 91-10 over the past decade, which includes two state titles in three Dakota Bowl appearances. All those numbers are nice, but it’s last year’s state championship loss to Kidder County that is top of mind for the current players as they use it to fuel their fire. The faces change, but the expectations won’t for Sandy Laxdal’s team. The Tornadoes graduated a quartet of all-staters, but I feel like they have the talent and strength to still be playing when the snow starts to fly.
The trio that made up the bulk of the offensive production for Cavalier last season graduated this past spring in QB Colton Ratchenski, RB Tanner Urlaub and WR Andre Carrier. So, you’ll hear some different names being called on Friday nights in Tornado country. Senior WR/RB/LB Brannin Cleem should see plenty of opportunities after combining for over 500 yards of offense last season and reaching the endzone ten times. I think the speedy Trevor Hinkle will also emerge after a strong sophomore season in 2019. Junior RB/LB Demetrius Avila led the defense with over 100 total tackles last year, including nine tackles for loss. He’ll be asked to lead that unit again along with senior OL/DL/LB Andre LeTexier. Brysen Cleem was the backup at QB last year and we’ll see if the junior gets the nod to lead the offense in 2020.
4. Grant County/Flasher
Last year, the Storm ended a four-year playoff drought and even picked up a first-round playoff victory over Ray/Powers Lake, 48-6. They went down swinging, too, giving eventual state champ Kidder County its toughest challenge in the postseason in a 34-28 nail-biter in the quarterfinal round. With the team’s culture on the up-swing and plenty of team speed returning, head coach Jamie Krenz has a lot to be excited about entering the 2020 season. A tough region schedule awaits, but the Storm should be able to put up the points again. They averaged 39.3 ppg last season, which ranked 6th in the state.
Senior RB/DB Connor Ottmar (6’2” 185 lbs) will be one of the top rushers in 9-man after earning 2nd team all-state honors as a junior. Ottmar and classmate Thomas Bryant make for a great 1-2 punch in the Storm backfield. Those two have great speed and play-making ability which helps them not only on offense, but defensively too. Junior quarterback Jace Friesz returns as the starting quarterback and is expected to take another step forward in his development. Despite some inexperience on the offensive line, I think this team will be able to put up plenty of points again on Friday nights. Defensively, they’ll need to be disciplined because they’ll be going against some experienced quarterbacks and good offenses throughout the course of their schedule.
5. North Prairie
It was a roller coaster ride for North Prairie last season. The Cougars opened the season with a three-game win streak, got thumped by Cavalier and the ups and downs continued until a first-round playoff exit at Finley Sharon-Hope-Page. The challenge for Josh Keller is to instill the confidence in his players that they can beat the top teams in the state. Last year, they struggled mightily against Cavalier and New Rockford-Sheyenne. If they get their confidence rolling early this team can be dangerous with the combination of high-end players and extensive varsity experience at many positions.
While many teams in region two graduated their star players following last season, the Cougars return their top threat in senior RB/LB Xavier Mitchell. Mitchell enters his senior season as a three-time first-team all-region performer. He’s played a lot of football and now has the chance to lead his team to its first playoff victory since he was a freshman. He’s a tough guy to bring down, just ask some of the defenders in region two. The Elick twins are seniors, as well. Andre Elick returns at quarterback, while his brother Logan will lead the receiving unit. Both also play in the secondary on defense. Tyrel Yoder and Jake Mitchell are a couple of other leaders on the squad. They’ll need some younger players to step up and fill the spots of a couple of all-region performers on the line, but I expect North Prairie to make some noise in 2020.
The Bubble Teams
New Rockford-Sheyenne, Beach, Napoleon-G-S, MayPort-C-G, LaMoure-L-M
9-Man Preseason Player of the Year
Lucas Schumacher, Linton-HMB
10 Players to Watch in 9-Man
- Tyson Mattern, Beach
- Brannin Cleem, Cavalier
- Connor Ottmar, Grant County/Flasher
- Jonah Harter, Kidder County
- Tristan Patzner, Kidder County
- Trey Jacob, Linton-HMB
- Sawyer Satrom, MayPort-C-G
- Johnny Grann, New Rockford-Sheyenne
- Xavier Mitchell, North Prairie
- Noah Schroeder, Ray/Powers Lake