New faces at the top. Last year ended a 10-year run of either Shanley or St. Mary’s playing in the Class AA state championship game with Hillsboro-Central Valley topping Beulah 35-12 for the hardware. It’s worth mentioning that Shanley made the move up to AAA last season.
Now, the question is if we’ll see another fresh face breakthrough and make the Class AA championship game for the first time in a while. Hillsboro-Central Valley graduated a ton of experience off of their championship team, so maybe that opens the door. Perhaps a team like Valley City or Devils Lake can fight their way to the FargoDome? As you’ll see in my rankings, I’m predicting a Dakota Bowl mainstay to return to form in 2020.
1. St. Mary’s
A 6-4 record is a strange sight for Bismarck St. Mary’s football. The Saints were bit by the injury bug last season and never seemed to really hit their stride. This fall, I feel the Dan Smrekar’s team will bounce back. The Saints return six starters on both sides of the ball including some all-state picks. Smrekar believes his offensive line should be a strength with the players that return at that position. The Saints had their opening game on the schedule against Shanley removed because of the pandemic, so they’ll open at Valley City on September 4. The good news for the Saints is they get home games against Hillsboro-CV, Devils Lake and Beulah. The start of the schedule is tough, but I think this Saints team will be well prepared and have a better season in 2020.
The offensive line is where it starts and, for St. Mary’s, it’ll be nice to see experienced players like 6’4” 245 lb senior Zach Haas and juniors Jack Weikum, Ian Indovina and Nick Windsor back upfront. All-state returning rusher Cullen Curl is licking his chops to run behind those big boys upfront. The senior running back registered 850 yards on the ground a season ago, while reaching the endzone 15 times. Senior Jackson Uhler and junior Nick Schumacher are the candidates to replace Drew Dosch at quarterback for St. Mary’s. The defense will be led by all-state linebacker Reece Barnhardt, who’s also a three-time defending state wrestling champ. Nose guard Chase Russell is a big run-stopper for that defense, as well.
The Miners are coming off their first Dakota Bowl appearance since winning the state championship in 2015. Jim Dooley’s squad lost just two games last year and both came at the hands of state champ Hillsboro-Central Valley. Beulah had to deal with its own set of injuries late in the year when sophomore quarterback Trey Brandt suffered a wrist injury and had to miss the postseason. Brandt should be back to help lead that unique single-wing offense that had its way with several teams last season. Beulah averaged 29.5 ppg last season but struggled at times defensively. That’s where they’ll need to improve in order to make this #2 ranking hold true.
The rushing attack will be highlighted by senior Nate Battest, who was one of two Beulah backs to top 1,000 yards on the ground last season. Battest also reached the endzone 14 times en route to earning all-state honors. He was joined on the all-state team by junior Trapper Skalsky who rushed for 400 yards and led the team on defense with over 60 tackles. Skalsky and Battest will be asked to do quite a bit on both sides of the ball in addition to Brandt. Seniors Aaron Ripplinger and Jacob Klaudt will also make a significant impact this season after being among the team’s leading tacklers in 2019.
3. Valley City
Last year, I tabbed Valley City as my #3 team following a winless season in 2017 and a 4-5 campaign in 2018. A lot of readers probably thought I was crazy, but Scott Roerich’s team didn’t let me down. The Hi-Liners finished 7-4, won a playoff game and nearly knocked off Beulah in the semifinal round to reach the Dakota Bowl. It’s great to see the Hi-Liner program picking up steam again and I think it’ll continue in 2020. The key to Valley City’s run last year was defense. After surrendering a combined 63 points in their first two games (losses to Beulah and St. Mary’s), the Hi-Liner defense didn’t allow multiple touchdowns in a game until the final week of the regular season in a loss to the eventual defending state champs from Hillsboro-Central Valley. They graduated a strong senior class led by Riley Gerhardt, Mitchel Taylor and Austyn Thornton, but I think those guys helped get the winning culture back on track for the program.
I’ll start my list of impact players with a lineman because the big guys deserve the love. Returning all-state pick Landon Hanson should be one of the most dominant players on the offensive and defensive lines this fall. He’s been gaining a lot of attention on the recruiting trail and if you look at his HUDL tape you’ll quickly see why. He’s a pancake machine on offense and will require a lot of double teams when he’s on defense. Senior RB/LB Max Fehr was a second-team, all-state pick in 2019 and should take another big step forward as a leader in 2020. Senior OL/LB Carson McGough is another returning all-region pick that’ll make an impact.
Is this too low for the defending Class AA state champs? It certainly could be, but this will be a lineup full of so many new faces that it’s hard to predict how they’ll finish. A senior class that helped the Burros achieve a 35-1 record and two state titles over the past three seasons is gone. You don’t lose a group like that and expect to keep humming along seamlessly. However, Scott Olsen has turned this program into a powerhouse in recent years and I think this year’s team will be in the playoff mix when it’s all said and done. You know the Burros will be physical and you know that they’ll want to pound the ball at you on offense.
The Burros return three starters on both sides of the ball and that includes standout OL/LB Kaden Pastian. Pastian is a big strong young man that teams will need to account for when they’re putting together game plans. Senior Sam Preston takes over the keys to the offense after watching Micah Gallagher thrive in that spot in the last few seasons. When we stopped out at practice teammates raved about Preston’s leadership and athletic ability. He earned varsity time last year at safety and should be one of the top players in the division. Gavin Mitzel and Jace Leshuk are tasked with filling the void left in the backfield by 2019 player of the year Oscar Benson. Coach Olsen feels his team’s depth should give them a huge advantage throughout the year. His scheme for defense always seems to work. The Burros have finished the last three seasons holding opponents to an average of 6.8 ppg or less.
5. Devils Lake
I debated my choice at number five for quite a bit but ended up settling on Devils Lake over Central Cass and Kindred. Todd Lambrecht is the new head coach after spending the last two seasons as defensive coordinator for the Firebirds. Devils Lake finished 4-5 last season but was very close to having a much different looking record. They took Hillsboro-Central Valley to overtime, had a close loss to Valley City and put up 20 points in a 9-point playoff loss to Beulah. I feel like they have a chance to turn the corner in 2020.
Ben Heilman earned valuable experience as the starting quarterback last year as a sophomore and should take a big step forward as a junior. All-state lineman James Tice returns for his senior season and should provide strong leadership for a team that should surprise many this season. Senior RB/LB Zach Lange returns as one of the team’s top rushers and tacklers from a season ago.
The Bubble Teams
Central Cass, Kindred
Class AA Preseason Player of the Year
Cullen Curl, St. Mary’s
10 Players to Watch in Class AA
- Reece Barnhardt, St. Mary’s
- Nate Battest, Beulah
- Max Fehr, Valley City
- Landon Hanson, Valley City
- Ethan McKenney, Kindred
- Kade McKinnon, Central Cass
- Kaden Pastian, Hillsboro-CV
- Austin Richter, Hazen
- Trapper Skalsky, Beulah
- James Tice, Devils Lake