This is the seventh and final part in Northstar Football News' profiles of teams who might surprise in the 2017 season. From now until August 31, we will attempt highlight a “sleeper” team from each level that we believe will have a bounce back year this fall after finishing with a .500 or worse record in 2016.
NFN's 2017 3A sleeper: Virginia Blue Devils
2016 Record: 3-6
Returning starters: Bryce Kennedy OL/DL, Paul Checco OL, Riley Dishneau OL, Ethan Youso TE/DL, Caleb Bialke RB, Jack Zupetz QB, Tanner Hinzman FB/DL, Beau Foix DL, Chris Mason DB, Carter Crandall LB, Dawson Flatley LB, Cody Herrmann DB
Okay – I will admit this is a bit of a cheat on my part. Virginia played a Week 0 game on Thursday and won by twenty. In a scheduling quirk, the Blue Devils play the same team in Week 8. Unless things change dramatically over the next two months, I figure I am almost starting with a 2-0 team. In my defense I did have Virginia in my top three 3A teams, I was considering for this series of stories before Thursday night.
I didn't just pick them because of the early win already in the bag. After a rough start, coming down the stretch in 2016 Virginia won three of their final five games. That season arc is typical of a young team finding their way, and they were a young team.
Head coach Ed Cremers feels the team's strengths this year will be size and experience – especially along the line of scrimmage. In 2017 they return eight starters on defense and seven starters on offense.
They do return quarterback Tanner Hinzman – practically a pre-requisite for me picking teams for these stories – but they also return one of the best players in Class 3A. Lineman Bryce Kennedy has already committed to the University of South Dakota as an offensive lineman and will be anchoring both lines for the Blue Devils. They also return two other 2016 All-Section selections in offensive lineman Paul Checco and tight end Ethan Youso.
Joining Kennedy – NFN's 38th ranked player in the 2018 class – on the defensive line is the entire 2016 starting line – including Youso. They also return two starting linebackers and both cornerbacks to a defense that like the team improved down the stretch.