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Section 1A: A tossup at the top

September 1, 2018

The race for the Section One, Class A football championship appeared up for grabs among three or four teams last season.

Not much appears to have changed this year.

Some of the top players in the section have graduated, but defending champion Goodhue, 2017 section runner-up Blooming Prairie, Rushford-Peterson and Fillmore Central again appear to be the teams to beat in the section.

Goodhue built its section title team around a powerful line and dynamic running game last season. The Wildcats will again be strong in those areas, with two All-District linemen and a pair of talented running backs returning.

The Wildcats have nine total starters back, and will need to fill in some gaps as they seek their 11th trip to a state tournament.

“We are not the biggest team, but we have good team speed,” head coach Tony Poncelet said. “We have good numbers, which means good competitive practices for a lot of positions.”

Rushford-Peterson also has high hopes this year after an 8-2 season in 2017. The Trojans’ lone regular-season loss came against Goodhue, then R-P was edged at home by Blooming Prairie 21-20 in a section playoff semifinal game.

R-P is loaded with experienced players, though, as it has nine starters back on offense and eight on defense.

“We have nine seniors who will lead our football team,” Trojans head coach Davin Thompson said. “We are also excited to have a nice mix of talented young athletes who can step in and help us at a number of different positions.”

Blooming Prairie will be in the mix again this season, as well, led by senior quarterback Seth Petersen, who had an outstanding junior season with 2,278 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and just 9 interceptions. The Blossoms pushed Goodhue in a 19-14 loss in the section title game, twice getting the ball back in the fourth, when a TD would have given them the lead.

• GOODHUE •

The defending Section champion Wildcats lost more than a dozen starters to graduation, including standout running back Mason Huemann (1,760 yards, 23 touchdowns) and Division I-bound Ryan Schoenfelder (36 receptions, 828 yards, 7 TDs; 9 sacks, 80 tackles), an athletic tight end/defensive end who now plays for the University of North Dakota. Also gone is three-fifths of a dominant offensive line that led Goodhue to an unbeaten regular season, an 11-1 overall record and the 10th trip to state in school history.

The Wildcats, as usual, have good numbers, and a solid group of returning players to build around. They have four starters back on offense and five on defense. That group includes three All-District players, linemen Kelby O’Reilly and Kodee O’Reilly, and receiver Carter Danielson.

Senior running back Kaleb O’Reilly, receiver Jacob Christensen and running back Bjorn Otterness are other returning starters who saw significant action last season for a Wildcats team that averaged 35.5 points per game and allowed just 9.4 ppg.

“We have a good group of seniors who have been successful in the lower levels,” Poncelet said. “A lot of them played a key role in winning the section last season. We have athletic 10th- and 11th-grade classes that will have to learn fast.”

• RUSHFORD-PETE. •

A young Trojans team came up just a point shy of reaching the section title game, but R-P’s young starters gained valuable experience in a narrow 21-20 loss to Blooming Prairie in the section semifinals. They’ll carry that experience, and a hunger to go deeper in the postseason, into this season.

R-P lost a couple of key starters – Jacob Paulson and Dawson Dahl – to graduation, but the Trojans (8-2 overall in 2017) have a load of starters back.

They’re led by senior quarterback Landon Skalet, a fourth-year starter and one of nine seniors on the roster. Skalet threw for 998 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior. The Trojans’ offense will be balanced by senior running back Ethan Sense, who was R-P’s top ball carrier a year ago, when he ran for 1,098 yards and 18 touchdowns. Senior fullback Carter Weideman – a third-year starter – returns to lead the way in the backfield, as well as anchor the defensive front seven.

Up front, R-P is led by another veteran, senior Ian Brown, who is a third-year starter on both lines and rarely leaves the field. “He’s a strong, athletic football player,” coach Davin Thompson said.

Expectations are high this season, based not only on the return of those veterans, but the fact that they have all five starting linemen back from last year’s team, which outscored opponents 305-156. Eight starters are also back on defense.

“We’re excited to bring back eight starters on the defensive side of the ball and nine on the offensive side,” Thompson said. “We play in a tough district and section, so we will rely on our experience.”

• BLOOMING PRAIRIE •

The Blossoms were one drive away from avenging a regular-season loss and reaching the Class A state tournament last season, but they ultimately fell in the section final 19-14 to Goodhue. That big-game experience will be beneficial this season as the Blossoms look to return to state for the first time since 2014, and the eighth time overall in school history.

It won’t be an easy task in a battle-tested section, but the Blossoms are loaded with upperclassmen who have been through some pressure situations.

Their four senior captains include senior QB Seth Petersen, who completed 156 of 276 passes last season for 2,278 yards and 25 TDs, with nine interceptions. He also ran for 409 yards and three TDs. Colin Lerum, a LB/WR, is also a captain; he had 30 tackles last season, as well as 19 catches for 237 yards and three TDs.

Blooming Prairie’s other captains are offensive and defensive lineman Trenton Swenson (18 tackles, two sacks) and linebacker/receiver Payton Simon (58 tackles; 20 receptions, 295 yards, 2 TDs).

The Blossoms have a number of other weapons returning: Senior safety/receiver Tim Wolf (37 tackles; 33 rec., 457 yards, 5 TDs); junior defensive end/receiver Gabe Hagen (32 rec., 556 yards, 8 TDs); junior linebacker/running back Matthew Pryor (20 tackles; 444 rushing yards, 7 TDs); sophomore lineman Mitchell Fiebiger (56 tackles); and juniors Dylan Nirk (55 tackles, 2 sacks); Alex Baldwin; Karson Vigeland (37 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Zach Weber (17 tackles).

“Right now we are looking at working hard, getting better each day, improving our best, learning our alignments, assignments and techniques, and growing as individuals,” head coach Chad Gimbel said.

• FILLMORE CENTRAL •

The Falcons lost more than a dozen talented players to graduation, a group that helped the team go 7-3 overall last season, including a six-game winning streak that was snapped by eventual section champion Goodhue in the Section 1A semifinal round.

Coach Chris Mensink does welcome back a handful of starters, including senior running back Josh Peters, who has been among the Falcons’ top ball carriers each of the past two seasons. Peters ran the ball 90 times for 713 yards (an impressive average of 7.9 yards per carry) last season and scored 10 touchdowns.

“Our kids understand how to prepare and have had a great offseason with our strength and agility program, and practices,” Mensink said. “We return one of our top rushers (Peters) as well as a couple of linemen, and we have pretty good speed on this year’s team.”

Among Fillmore Central’s other top returners are a pair of lineman, senior All-District lineman Brock Walsh, and junior Hadrian Williams. Peters (42 tackles, 2 interceptions); Walsh (40 taclkes, 7 TFL); Williams (15 tackles) and senior linebacker Tyler Raaen (26 tackles, 16 solo) all excelled on defense last season, as well.

The Falcons will need to find replacements for some outstanding starters, including standout Brady Ristau. They still have plenty of players who remember what it was like to be part of a team that played for the section title in 2015 and 2016.

“We also have some very promising younger kids who we expect will play important roles for us this year,” Mensink said. “Our kids have had a great offseason in the weight room and at summer practices. They will compete each game and expect to be very competitive in the district and the section once again. They have worked hard to put themselves in a position to contend this year.”

• WABASHA-KELLOGG •

The Falcons had one of the better seasons in the program’s recent history last fall, going 4-4 in the regular season and 4-5 overall. W-K persevered through injuries to several of its top players and nearly pulled out the program’s first above-.500 season since 1996.

W-K will need to replace some veteran leaders, as RB/CB Cooper Holtorf, LB/RB Trevor Timm and lineman Ben Tentis graduated.

One big returner for W-K this fall is senior linebacker/running back Tagen Miller, who missed half of last season due to an injury. He was the team’s leading tackler, despite playing in just five of its nine games. Senior wing back/linebacker Jamie Hewitt also returns after rushing for more than 600 yards in 2017, and junior lineman Max Kuntz, a third-year starter, is back after leading the team in sacks last season.

W-K’s coaching staff – which is made up entirely of former college football players – will be a boost to a team that lost all three starters in its defensive secondary, as well as half of its offensive backfield.

The front seven will be a strength for the team on defense.

“We have speed at linebacker,” Tim Klingbeil, who enters his seventh season as W-K’s head coach, said. “It’s a group of four-to-six kids who can move, think and tackle. This should prove to be a strong point in our league.”

• SOUTHLAND •

Southland’s strength this season will most certainly be its experience. The Rebels have 14 players back who started or played a significant amount of time last season, when Southland started the season 2-2 before hitting a skid to end the season 2-7.

“Our strengths are the work the kids have put in in the weight room during the offseason, and our team speed,” said head coach Shawn Kennedy, in his 12th season as the Rebels coach. “We are small in size and small in numbers this year, so we will have limited depth at some of our positions.”

Among the top returners for Southland are three-year starter Carter Schmitz, a junior linebacker and fullback; senior running back/linebacker Lee Wilson; linemen Clayton Luthe, Travis Russell, Reece Popenhagen, Karter Jax and Noah Sayles; seniors Caden Sorenson (TE/LB), John Hegge (RB/DB), Tyler Jax (OL/LB) and Owen Smith (WR/S); junior QB/DB Noah Lamp; sophomore RB/LB Nick Boe and freshman RB/LB Brendan Kennedy.

“We play in a very, very competitive (district) and usually have three or four teams ranked in the top 10 (in the state) in our section all season, so we know we have to be prepared each week,” coach Kennedy said. “The young men at Southland are very coachable, work hard and will do whatever is asked of them, and that makes coaching very fun and enjoyable.”

• KINGSLAND •

Brett Stinson enters his third season as coach of the Knights, who took a step in the right direction last season by snapping a 50-game losing streak with a dominant 35-14 victory against Hayfield in the regular-season finale.

Kingsland (1-8 overall last year) lost a handful of key players to graduation, including Matthew Woods, Jackson Rindels and Ethan Fenske, but the Knights welcome back four All-District players. That group includes receiver Reid Kruegel (13.6 yards per catch, 4 interceptions); lineman Hunter Fabian, a three-year starter; linebacker Dallas Jones; and linebacker Bradyn Willford. Nick Ramaker is another top returner, who had 24 tackles last season.

Kingsland gets a big boost this season in terms of number of players out for the team. The Knights have 41 players out in grades 9-12, which will give them some strong competition in practice as well as some depth.

The Knights have eight starters back on both sides of the ball, including a handful of third-year starters. Stinson said they will have good team speed on the perimeter, as well.

Kruegel, Jones and Lucas Howard will serve as the team’s captains, while the coaching staff gets a boost with the addition of former long-time Stewartville assistant Tim Bestor, who spent more than 20 seasons helping build the Tigers’ program.

“We really grew as a team at halftime of the Goodhue game and finished the season strong,” Stinson said of a 44-6 loss to the Wildcats, the week prior to Kingsland’s win against Hayfield last season. “Our players have worked hard through our offseason lifting program, organized team activities and summer camp. The players have demonstrated strong leadership and a commitment to compete. … We’re focused on improving daily, weekly, monthly as the season carries on in the toughest Class A district in the state.”

• HAYFIELD •

John Howe takes over this season as head coach of the Vikings, who went 0-9 overall last season and are seeking their first victory since the final game of the 2016 regular season. Howe said he likes what he’s seen so far from his players and their willingness to work together.

“Our student-athletes have created a bond with one another that provides a commitment to succeed,” he said. “They challenge their teammates on and off the field.”

Hayfield’s numbers are up and the team will be led by four key seniors – linebacker/offensive lineman Tristan Rieken, cornerback/wide receiver Mason Nitz, quarterback/safety Jake Risius, and running back/linebacker Kolby Tapp.

“We have increased the number of players on our roster,” Howe said. “This will allow athletes to play at their current level throughout the season as they develop their football skills and knowledge. The increase in numbers allows us to get more players on the field and allows impact players to have a few downs off throughout the game.”

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