The defending state champ from Class 2A, Fargo Shanley, has made the move to Class 3A this season and that leaves the other dominant program in the division, Bismarck St. Mary’s, as the favorite.
The Saints are coming off a runner-up finish in 2018 and will break-in a new stadium with state championship aspirations. To me, it’s St. Mary’s and everybody else right now. But I think we’ll see some of the other contenders become stronger and stronger as the season goes on. Hillsboro-Central Valley and Beulah are both moving back up from Class A, but they’re always tough when it comes to late October.
Class 2A was expected to increase from 10 to 12 teams this fall, but Stanley has decided to forfeit its season due to a lack of participation numbers. That leaves the division at 11 teams with five from the west and six from the east. The long bus trips will continue for the division. One of the lengthiest hikes will be Watford City’s 338-mile adventure to play Hillsboro-Central Valley on September 6th.
Let’s just say I don’t envy the players and coaches that are going to have to make that 5-and-a-half-hour bus ride. The good news is that there should be enough time to watch Remember the Titans twice to get extra pumped up for the game.
1. St. Mary’s
New school. New stadium. New turf field. St. Mary’s will have a lot of new this season, but that doesn’t trickle too much to the actual football team. No, the Saints are returning quite a bit off last year’s Class AA state runner-up squad and Head Coach Dan Smrekar is back for his ho-hum 42nd season. Smrekar will also be stepping onto a field that has been named after him when the Saints kick off the season against rival Shanley on August 30. The Saints return most of their skill players and should be one of the fastest teams in the state. If they can get a few players to step up on the offensive and defensive lines, I think the Saints have a chance to dominate the season from start to finish.
First-team all-state quarterback Drew Dosch returns for his senior season after passing for 1,214 yards, rushing for 262 yards and combining for 21 touchdowns as a junior. Dosch has become a solid leader for the Saints and he knows how to make defenses pay for their mistakes.
Joining Dosch in the backfield will be fellow all-stater Joey Heinert who rushed for 904 yards and reached the endzone 14 times last fall. Heinert is a speedster that is a threat to rip off a big run any time he touches the football.
Junior RB Cullen Curl and senior WR Jaxon Wiseman are a couple more playmakers that will make the St. Mary’s offense tough to stop.
Connor Peutz (LB), Chris Birnbaum (DE), and Joel Huber (LB) will head up a Saints defense that tied Shanley last season for top scoring defense, allowing just 10.6 points per contest. Look for the experienced Saints to hit the turf running in 2019.
2. Hillsboro-Central Valley
The last time Hillsboro-Central Valley played as a Class AA program, they were eliminated in the state semifinal round by St. Mary’s 28-6. That was in 2016 and since then the Burros have dominated the Class A division by winning 23 straight games, including a state title in 2017, before losing to Langdon-Edmore-Munich in last year’s state championship.
Now, the Burros are back and built to contend again with seven returning starters on both sides of the ball. NDSU commit and senior RB/LB Oscar Benson is the headliner after earning all-state honors by posting gaudy stats as a junior. Scott Olsen is excited about the leadership of his team because he knows that the seniors have reached a semifinal game and two state championship contests in their careers. He’s hoping that success paired with the motivation of being back in Class AA will fuel his team for another deep postseason run.
I mentioned Oscar Benson put up some big numbers last season. Here they are:
- He rushed the ball 254 times for 1,910 yards and 22 touchdowns.
- On defense, he registered 50 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions.
The 6'1" 190-pound Benson will have a tougher task competing against the Class AA schools, but something tells me the future Bison player will be up for the challenge.
Senior LB/FB Isaac Luithle will spearhead the Burro defense after wrapping up his junior season with an incredible 101 tackles, including 17.5 tackles for loss.
Senior TE/DE Landen Reed (6'1" 190 lbs.) will be a force on the field, as well. Reed recorded 234 receiving yards last season and piled up 50 tackles.
Micah Gallagher returns for his second year under center and has proven to be a dual-threat quarterback.
Seniors Carson Henningsgard, Ezra Longthorne and Gavin Wright also have proven themselves as playmakers on both sides of the football.
3. Valley City
Two years ago, the Hi-Liners didn’t win a single game and combined to score 66 points in nine games for an average of 7.3 points per game. In 2018, Scott Roehrich’s team took a big step forward by finishing 4-5 overall and playing eventual state champ Shanley very tough in a 16-12 loss late in the season.
This year should see a continuation of the positive trend for Valley City football with a large group of upperclassmen. The program will also see some new faces as they begin a co-op with Barnes County North.
The Hi-Liners have reached the playoffs only once in the last six years, so the program is hoping to turn their hunger into postseason success. It won’t be an easy start or finish to the season. The Hi-Liners break open the year with games against Beulah and St. Mary’s and they finish the regular season on the road against Hillsboro-Central Valley.
Hi-Liner fans will hear Riley Gerhardt’s name quite a bit this season after earning first-team all-state honors as a junior. Gerhardt made 127 tackles last fall and had an interception and a sack. Gerhardt, who’s 6'1" 195 lbs., is also the team’s top offensive lineman.
Tate Sufficool is back to lead the offense at quarterback. He passed for 10 touchdowns as a junior and rushed for five more scores, but he’ll need to improve his decision making to take the offense to the next level.
Sam Payne was the team’s leading rusher in 2018 after rumbling for over 600 yards and three touchdowns.
Benton Murray and Avery Bennefled are a couple more names to watch this season as the Hi-Liners try to make some noise in Class AA.
4. Devils Lake
Head Coach Jake Wateland is ready to see his team get over the hump in 2019 and contend for a region title. The Firebirds are coming off a 4-6 campaign in 2018 but return eight starters on both sides of the ball. Those returners will be asked to make up for the loss of 2-time all-state running back Joey Hornstein who graduated this past spring. I think the Firebirds will be an improved team on both sides of the ball and I could see them being in the mix late in the year if they can stay healthy.
The player earning the most attention in the preseason for the Firebirds is senior OL/DL Jack Kuntz (6'5" 285 lbs.). Kuntz committed to play at UND following his prep career and he’s expected to dominate the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. Kuntz is one of those players that will be part of the opposing team’s game plan throughout the week. He’s a big body that needs to be accounted for.
Seniors Jacob Andrews and Parker Vilandre will lead the defense from the linebacking corps. The two of them combined for 106 tackles last season.
Joe Frelich and Zach Lange should be a good 1-2 punch in the backfield alongside quarterback Ben Heilman.
Beulah will be seeking a ninth consecutive trip to the postseason this fall, but it won’t be easy with the program making the jump back up to Class AA after back-to-back seasons in Class A. The Miners graduated the tough running Kaleb McGraw but return a lot of the guys that helped pave the way for him.
8th-year Head Coach Jim Dooley says the Miners return four out of five starters on the offensive line, but he’s concerned about the team’s depth across the board. Beulah was young on the defensive side of the ball in 2018, but the hope is that it will pay off with more of a veteran group in 2019. In the end, a lot of Beulah’s success comes down to its system. Their single-wing attack of misdirection always causes headaches for defenses and we’ll see if it can carry them on another postseason run.
The impact starts upfront for Beulah. Senior OL/DL Korey Rueb (6'1" 275 lbs.) was a first-team all-state selection last year and will be asked to lead the charge once again at the line of scrimmage. Rueb also registered 40 tackles, 8 TFL and a trio of sacks on defense in 2018.
Lineman Cade Steffan (5'11" 208 lbs.) and tight end Jonah Larson (6'5" 270 lbs.) should also help the offense get a great push up front for the ground game.
Senior Tryston Miller is the top returning rusher after gaining 769 yards and 11 touchdowns on 70 carries last season.
The Bubble Teams
Kindred, Hazen, Turtle Mountain
10 Players to Watch in Class AA
- Jonah Larson, Beulah
- Korey Rueb, Beulah
- Jack Kuntz, Devils Lake
- Oscar Benson, Hillsboro-CV
- Isaac Luithle, Hillsboro-CV
- Chris Birnbaum, St. Mary’s
- Drew Dosch, St. Mary’s
- Joey Heinert, St. Mary’s
- Jaxon Wiseman, St. Mary’s
- Riley Gerhardt, Valley City