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Section 1AA: A new King for the king?

September 1, 2018
Caledonia defensive back Tate Meiners (25) breaks up a pass intended for Paynesville’s Luke Johnson during a Class AA state semifinal game last season. Meiners is one of the top returning players for the three-time defending champion Warriors.

The dominant program in Class AA football over the past half-decade will be put to a test this season.

Gone is one of the most talented classes in Caledonia Warriors history, a group that included one of the best – if not the best – player Caledonia has ever produced.

Quarterback Owen King has moved along, a sure-fire Division I QB who chose instead to follow his passion for basketball. He’ll play for Division I South Dakota State beginning this winter. King finished his storied career with a 41-0 record as a starter, 8,236 passing yards, 134 touchdowns, just 12 interceptions and three state championships.

He’ll likely hand over the reins of the Warriors to another King – but which one? Owen’s younger brothers Noah and Eli could both be in line to become Caledonia’s next signal-caller.

Whoever lines up under center for the Warriors this season will look to extend the state’s longest current winning streak. They haven’t lost since the 2014 state semifinals, a 21-0 setback against BOLD. But head coach Carl Fruechte is cautiously optimistic about this year’s team.

Having to replace a class that included – among others – King, talented receivers/defensive backs Jordan Burg and Marten Morem, lineman Brent Robley, linebacker/running back Mason Staggemeyer and Andrew Goergen, is a daunting task, even for a program that is built to reload each season.

“We’re starting over from the beginning,” Fruechte said.

Coaches across the section still see the Warriors, and last year’s section runner-up Triton, as the teams to beat.

“Caledonia will again be the favorite in the section,” St. Charles coach Matt Reinhardt said. “Anytime you have a team as good as they were last year, you’ll have to replace a lot of talent (lost to graduation). They lose a lot, but they had a very good JV and a handful of talented juniors who contributed last year.

“Triton lost a very good senior class, but they also had a nice JV last year.”

• CALEDONIA •

Aside from a 34-27 come-from-behind victory at Triton in the regular season last year, it’s been awhile since Caledonia has been challenged. During the course of its 41-game winning streak – dating back more than three years – no team, aside from Triton last year, has come closer than 19 points.

That could change this season – or it may not – but it doesn’t mean Caledonia won’t still have a bullseye on its back. The Warriors lost a big and talented senior class, but the cupboard is far from bare.

Caledonia brings back some starters, and will have some newcomers to the starting lineup who have seen plenty of game action in recent seasons.

Among the top players back for the Warriors are lineman Arick Bauer, receiver Tate Meiners, running back Nick McCabe, receiver Kyle Cavanaugh, tight end Evan Denstad, running back Jack Beardmore, lineman Brady Rosendahl, fullback Ryan Wagner, and receiver Payton Schott.

“We have too many weaknesses right now to mention, but I’m really excited to see how this group grows,” Fruechte said.

Caledonia opens the season at Plainview-Elgin-Millville before playing host to Triton in Week 2 in a rematch of last season’s Section 1AA championship game.

• TRITON •

Like Caledonia, last year’s section runner-up Triton is rebuilding after an outstanding season, that could have ended in a state-tournament berth, had Caledonia not been blocking its path. The Cobras went 9-2 last season, both losses coming at the hands of the Warriors.

The section title-game loss brought the careers of a tremendous and successful senior class – including standouts Levi Smith, Hunter Jennings, Brady Essig and Josh Willette, among others – to a close, and it also closed the chapter on a long run of success for head coach Don Henderson.

But first-year head coach Mike Ellingson is looking to carry on the Cobras’ tradition this season and into the future.

Triton has plenty of experienced and talented players to build around this season, including senior All-District running back and versatile offensive threat Drew Kelly (76 rushes, 744 yards, 15 TDs; 33 rec., 784 yards, 8 TDs); receiver/cornerback Colt Kelly (31 tackles); honorable mention All-District linebacker/offensive lineman Issak Knutson (77 total tackles); senior running back/defensive back Anthony Avery (71 tackles; 108 rushing yards); and junior quarterback Austin Melder (14 rushes, 184 yards).

In all, Triton has a good mix of upperclassmen and younger players, with 15 seniors on the roster, including 10 returning letterwinners and four returning starters on both sides of the ball.

“We have talented individuals on our roster,” Ellingson said. “We are working to put that together as a team and hold each other to a high standard of play.”

• LEWISTON-ALTURA •

Coach Brent Olson’s team knows what it’s up against on a weekly basis in its district and in Section 1AA. But the Cardinals won’t back down from a tough schedule or any challenge put in front of them.

“It looks to be another very strong season in the Southeast District and Section 1AA,” Olson said.

“We will work to keep getting better each week.”

Lewiston-Altura went 5-5 a year ago, though it rallied in the second half of the season and won three of its final five games. The only losses in that span came against a powerhouse Triton team, including a loss in the Section 1AA semifinal round.

The Cardinals lost some talented skill-position players to graduation, including multi-year starting quarterback Dusty Knutson, Bradley Miller, Ozzie Peshon and Calen McNally.

But they also return some key players on both sides of the ball. L-A will be led by senior quarterback/safety Marcus Weaver (44 tackles, 1 interception); senior running back/linebacker Noah Herber, who returns after missing the 2017 season with an injury; senior running back/linebacker Evan Daley (24 tackles; 24 rushes, 272 yards, 2 TDs); and senior tight end/defensive end Mitch Bonow (18 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 TFL; 15 receptions, 337 yards, 4 TDs).

“It will be very important that we don’t have injuries,” Olson said. “If we can avoid those, we will look to compete week in and week out. We are in the toughest section and district top-to-bottom in Class AA in the state, so every week is a major challenge for us.”

• CHATFIELD •

There is plenty of reason for optimism and excitement in Chatfield this season. The Gophers are coming off a 5-5 season in which they won three of their past four games before playing well in a 33-14 Section 1AA semifinal loss at Caledonia.

Though the Gophers lost a handful of key players to graduation – including leading tackler Carter Fishbaugh, leading rusher Kyle Nosbisch, linemen Cole Asleson and Robert Crouch, quarterback Jacob Gillespie, and running back/linebacker Ben Ihrke – coach Jeff Johnson has a senior-heavy roster this year, full of players with extensive varsity experience.

“We are more senior-loaded this year than we have been since the 2013 state championship season,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of returning starters on both sides of the ball.”

Johnson said a big factor to the Gophers’ success this season will be the play of their offensive line, which has three of the five starters back from a year ago, as well as tight end Chance Backer, a junior All-District selection. Among the linemen back are junior All-District pick Isaiah Froese, and senior honorable mention All-District pick Zach Roline.

“We have quite a bit of depth at the skill back positions, returning three of our four starters,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a lot of games under the belt at quarterback, however we are happy with what we are currently seeing.”

Other top returners and seniors for the Gophers include All-District players Carson Larrabee (running back/linebacker) and Nathan Goldsmith (linebacker, third-year starter). Seniors Gage Tuohy (running back/safety), Lincoln Salsbury (linebacker/running back), Davontae Goldsmith, safety Ben Brogen and WR Seth Allen.

“We are coming into the season with lots of excitement and high expectations,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of returning starters and a lot of speed on the field. This year’s team is one of the hardest working groups we have had in the offseason. We will have a very tough schedule, being one of the smallest schools in our division, but our players are looking forward to every challenge.”

• ST. CHARLES •

Saints coach Matt Reinhardt will have plenty of leaders to lean on this season, with a deep and talented senior class that looks to improve upon last season’s 3-6 mark.

“We have a strong senior class with a lot of potential,” Reinhardt said. “In order to reach that potential we will have to work hard on a consistent basis and play very hard Friday nights.”

St. Charles lost some key starters to graduation, including a talented 1-2 running back punch of Parker Wendt and Keagan Maloney, as well as quarterback Nolan Boice and lineman Hunter Heimer.

But the Saints’ returning standouts include a balance of linemen and skill-position players. They’ll be led by All-District defensive end/tight end Drew Leistikow. Other top returners include senior RB/defensive back Sam Holtz, senior linebacker Mark Buringa, senior linemen Gavin Owens, Hunter Oviatt, Chad Flodeen and Eli Dechamps, junior running back/linebacker Logan Wendt and senior WR Jersey Thoreson. “After (Caledonia and Triton) in our section, there are a handful of teams that have the potential to be pretty good if they put it together,” Reinhardt said. “I hope that can be us. We will have a number of kids step up who haven’t played a lot of varsity football and we need our experienced players to take large steps forward. We have potential.”

• KENYON-WANA. •

Kenyon-Wanamingo may want to change its initials from “K-W” to “RW” for this season, as in “Road Warriors.”

The Knights will log a lot of miles on the bus, playing all of their games on the road in 2018. The school has been renovating its track and football field area since the spring, and they are hoping to have it ready for next season, coach Jake Wieme said.

In the meantime, K-W will travel from Lester Prairie (west of Minneapolis, near Hutchinson) to Goodhue to play its games this season. The Knights’ “homecoming” is set for Sept. 14. At Goodhue.

“We are the Road Warriors this year,” Wieme said.

Wieme enters his fourth season as the Knights’ head coach. K-W is coming off a 4-5 season in 2017 and a first-round playoff loss to Lewiston-Altura. K-W lost some key players to graduation, including multi-year starting QB Jack Buelke, Chance Washburn, Cole Johnson and Logan Quam.

But the Knights’ strength will be their experience, led by running back Nate Bauer, the team’s top returning rusher (400 yards, 4 touchdowns in 2017). Other returners included running back Tyler Craig (200 yards, 1 TD), linemen Kaya Lindell (three-year starter) and Alec Nesseth, and quarterback Tate Erlandson.

“We have lots of returning experience and starters from last year on both sides of the ball,” Wieme said. “Our line should be a strength. Our defense has helped keep us in games in the past. We have to find a good balance of running and throwing the ball.”

• WINONA COTTER •

The Ramblers had a big bounce-back season in 2017, going 4-4 in the regular season before falling to powerful Triton in the opening round of the section playoffs to finish 4-5. That .500 season came on the heels of back-to-back winless seasons in 2015 and 2016.

Cotter now hopes to build on the momentum it gained a year ago, but it will have to replace more than a half-dozen starters, as key players Austin Griffin (1,379 rushing yards, 12 TDs), Jo Sandcork (723 passing yards, 8 TDs), Austin Kerrigan (332 rec. yards, 4 TDs), Zach Schell, Caleb Glodowski, Connor Walechka and Keagan Cranor graduated. All eight of those graduates started at more than one position.

“We graduated a lot of key components to our 2017 success,” coach Seth Haun said. “It will be a different challenge this year. We have a lot of new players who need to be brought up to speed very quickly. Fortunately, we have a strong core group of leaders and have some stability on the coaching staff. That consistency will make it easier for our new players to transition into their roles.”

Cotter will be strong up front, though, as three of the team’s top returning players are linemen – All-District pick Tyler Nachtigal (31 tackles), Jack Gardner (21 tackles) and Ethan Glodowski (2 tackles for loss) will anchor the line on both sides of the ball.

All-District tight end/linebacker Laken Macal, the team’s leading tackler with 52 total tackles, also returns, as does talented running back/cornerback Austin Hicks.

“We have a handful of returners with significant playing experience; however, we do not have much depth,” Haun said. “We have 13 incoming freshmen, so we will be very young this year. We have a lot to learn at most of our positions with new players needing to be in key roles.”

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