As we head into August, high school football season is just around the corner. All high school football players and other athletes on fall squads report for the start of fall practices on Monday, Aug. 10.
That first day is where the work starts to get to the Prep Bowl in mid-November. It’s where the leaders are formed and the season starts, far away from the first Friday night under the lights in a packed football stadium.
Last year in Class 5A, Mankato West returned to the top, beating Simley in the Prep Bowl as the Scarlets made their ninth state tournament appearance. It was their fourth championship. So out of last year’s state tournament teams, which has the best chance to be holding the championship trophy at the Prep Bowl?
Here is a look at what’s head in Class 5A, based on last year’s state tournament teams.
Mankato West (12-1), Big Southeast District
Mankato West has been one of the more dominant teams in southern Minnesota in recent years, and the Scarlets lived up to that standard with their fourth state championship. Their only regular season loss came in a stunner to Rochester John Marshall, and they beat Simley 42-19 to win the Prep Bowl at TCF Bank Stadium.
This fall, Mankato West has to replace one of the better quarterbacks in the state, Ryan Schlichte. He’ll likely be replaced by Zack Annexstad, who saw action in four games last year but threw just six passes. They do return two of their top rushers in Van Neils and Charles Terry, who combined for nine touchdowns last season. They’ll need to find new talent at wide receiver, something the Scarlets are always strong in, with Carter Burroughs being the main returning receiver. He caught just four passes last year in the regular season.
Mankato West will get tested early, hosting its season opener against rival Owatonna. The Scarlets then travel to another rival in Mankato East before hosting Rochester John Marshall and finishing the first half at Austin. It will be very interesting to see where the Scarlets are at four games in.
Spring Lake Park (8-4), Suburban District
Spring Lake Park is always a tough team to beat, and the Panthers proved it last year with their fifth state tournament appearance. They finished 8-4 after beating Faribault 43-19 in the quarterfinals and then lost a tough game, 21-14, to Simley, to fall just short of the Prep Bowl.
The Panthers always seem to run the ball hard and tackle well. They’ll likely be led by Zachary Ojile, who was one of their top rushers last year. He’ll be joined by Isley Carrington, who ran for more than 130 yards per game last season. There will be plenty of holes to fill on defense with several starters graduating.
Spring Lake Park will be tested throughout its schedule this fall. The Panthers’ first four games are at Chaska and at Park Center before hosting St. Louis Park and Irondale.
Sartell-St. Stephen (9-2), North Central District
Sartell-St. Stephen finished 9-2 last season, making its second straight trip to the state tournament and seventh overall. They met Simley in the quarterfinals and were defeated 44-20.
Sartell-St. Stephen will be in the North Central District this year. The Sabres will have plenty of talent to replace, but Sartell is a program that’s always been competitive. They have two candidates to play quarterback in Tyler Snoberger, who is also a tight end, and Christopher Belling. The pair threw a combined 11 passes last season. Logan Anding will be their top returning receiver with seven catches in the regular season.
The Sabres have a gauntlet of a schedule early with a season opener at Rogers, followed by home games against St. Cloud Tech and Moorhead, then a game at Bemidji to complete the first half of the schedule.
Faribault (8-3), Big Southeast District
Faribault finished 8-3 last season and made its second trip to the state tournament in school history. Their first was in 2011. The Falcons faced Spring Lake Park in the quarterfinals and suffered a 43-19 loss.
Faribault should have plenty of talent back in 2015, led by last year’s starting quarterback Kade Hart. The Falcons will have to find some new athletes in the run game with their top three running backs graduating.
Faribault is in the Big Southeast District this year, but its schedule is almost identical to its old Big Nine Conference slate. The Falcons will open hosting Rochester Mayo, then travel to Red Wing and Owatonna before hosting Mankato East to finish the first half of the schedule.
Simley (10-4), East Metro District
Simley survived a rough stretch in 2014 of three losses and four games and rallied at the right time to not only reach the state tournament, but advance to the Prep Bowl. The Spartans finished last year 10-4, with regular season losses to DeLaSalle, South St. Paul and Mahtomedi. It was their second state tournament appearance.
The Spartans return their starting quarterback form last year in Michael Bush, who was also one of their top rushers. They also return two of their top receivers in Cole Veith and Joe Crock.
Simley should be a contender in 2015, assuming it gets off to a good start. The Spartans host Park Cottage Grove in their opener and follow with a home game against Hastings. They then travel to South St. Paul before hosting St. Thomas Academy. Simley also has a brutal finish with road games at Hill-Murray and Mahtomedi leading up to the playoffs.
Bemidji (9-2), North Central District
Bemidji finished 9-2 last season and made its sixth state tournament appearance in school history. The Lumberjacks only regular season loss came to Moorhead in the finale. Their season ended in a 29-14 loss to St. Michael-Albertville in the 5A quarterfinals.
The Lumberjacks have always been an offense-minded program. Bemidji didn’t score less than 28 points in a single game last year, put up at least 40 points six times and they’re not afraid to try big plays. The Lumberjacks will have their top rusher back in Logan Hatfield and one of their top defensive players back in Jens Huseby.
If Bemidji can get off to a good start, it should be another promising season. The Lumberjacks will open North Central District play at St. Francis, then host Sauk Rapids-Rice. They also travel to St. Cloud Tech and host Sartell-St. Stephen to finish off a tough first half of the season.
St. Michael-Albertville (10-2), North Central District
St. Michael-Albertville had quite the season in 2014. The Knights finished 10-2, with their only regular season loss at Chisago Lakes. They gave Mankato West one of its toughest battles of the season, a 26-21 loss to the Scarlets in the 5A semifinals.
The Knights lost a lot of talented athletes to graduation, but are looking for Jacob Veire to fill the void at starting quarterback. Mitch Bourgerie will be one of the team’s top returning rushers, and Isaiah Weston is back to lead the wide receivers. St. Michael-Albertville typically thrives off its play on both the offensive and defensive line, and that’s not expected to change this year.
The Knights start the fall season by hosting Moorhead, then traveling to Big Lake. They follow that with two big games, both home, against rival Rogers and Elk River. We’ll know a lot more about St. Michael-Albertville when the first half of the schedule is done.
Bloomington Jefferson (7-4), Suburban District
Bloomington Jefferson was one of the surprises of last season, finishing 7-4 and making its first state tournament appearance since 1994. The Jaguars were overmatched in a 48-0 loss to Mankato West. But getting to the state playoffs was the accomplishment after they lost two straight to end the regular season.
The Jaguars will be led by quarterback Jacob Murray, who saw action in three games last year. They’ll also need to replace a group of talented running backs, but return Jeremy Hendricks and Sam Zaved. They also have a lot to replace on defense with five of their top tacklers graduated.
Bloomington Jefferson has an interesting early schedule, traveling for its opener to Robbinsdale Cooper. The Jaguars then host Orono, travel to Holy Angels and host Bloomington Kennedy to finish the first half. Their schedule is also back-loaded with Chanhassen and Chaska.
Mankato West should be considered the Class 5A favorite until somebody beats them, but the Scarlets will have plenty of competition among last year’s state tournament teams. It’ll be fun to watch it all take shape.