(Cover Photo: Jean Pieri/St. Paul Pioneer Press)
1. Elk River
2017 Record: 11-2, lost in Prep Bowl
Returning Starters: 10 (6 O, 4 D)
The Elks are looking for their third-straight Class AAAAA Prep Bowl appearance and second title in three years. With three offensive linemen, an All-District tight end, and the program’s single-season record holder in touchdowns all returning, there’s a great chance Steve Hamilton’s team makes good on both those goals.
Lafayette Bade will anchor both the offensive and defensive lines after earning All-North Central District honors last season. Senior running back Adam Nelson is back too after leading Elk River’s punishing ground game with 1,877 yards and 23 touchdowns.
The offense will be difficult to contain, but the defense could be a question mark again this fall. The Elks return just four starters from a unit that surrendered more than 30 points per game, including an average of 54 in the state tournament. Bade and linebacker Collin Nelson will need some help around them on defense for the Elks to claim another title.
2. Mankato West
2017 Record: 10-2, lost in State Quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 14 (7 O, 7 D)
Mankato West will be the most experienced team of any at the top of Class AAAAA. The Scarlets welcome 14 starters back from last year’s state quarterfinalist team, including multiple All-Big Southeast District players.
Linebacker Clay Herding headlines the group of returnees. Herding was the Big Southeast Blue Defensive Player of Year after filling the stat sheet with 104 tackles, six sacks, four FR, three FF, two INT, and four blocked punts. Three senior defensive linemen are also back for the Scarlets defense, along with junior cornerback Jon Sikel in the secondary.
West returns talent on offense too. Four linemen led by three-year starter Garrett Shumski return along with junior quarterback Jack Foster. Foster accounted for 38 touchdowns last season, but will have to find new weapons after losing his top running back and receiver to graduation.
2017 Record: 8-3, lost in State Quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 12 (4 O, 8 D)
Andover has traditionally been a team that’s tried to outscore opponents more than shut them down in a low-scoring battle, but with eight defensive starters back from last year’s squad the Huskies will have a formidable unit to go along with their potent offense.
Linebackers Holden Dunleavy and Matthew Brodeur return to anchor the defense. Both players totaled more than 80 tackles last season to lead the team. Carter Cloutier is also back to lead the experienced Huskies defense.
Most of the playmakers on offense have graduated, including quarterback Conner Knoepfle, but All-District receiver Lucas Beberg should again be tough to stop. Beberg totaled 45 receptions for 717 yards and six touchdowns as a junior.
2017 Record: 6-3, lost in Section Semifinals
Returning Starters: 9 (4 O, 5 D)
Moorhead’s run of seven-straight appearances in the Section 8AAAAA final came to an end last season. The Spuds were upset by Alexandria at home in the section semifinals, ending their year with a 6-3 record.
A strong group of returning players have Kevin Feeney’s group thinking state tournament again in 2018. The offensive line should be as talented as any in northern Minnesota with Jameson Cozad, Logan Garcia and Seth Anderson manning three of the five spots up front. Terrance Weah will be the featured back in the offense, replacing older brother Otis, but a replacement will need to be found for quarterback Jack Stetz.
The trio of lineman should get plenty of reps on defense too. Linebackers Riley Schock and Tony Angotti also return in the front seven, but new faces will be abundant in the Spuds secondary.
2017 Record: 12-1, won Prep Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 (2 O, 4 D)
The defending champs suffered massive losses to due graduation, including nine of 11 offensive starters, so why are they still ranked in the preseason Top 5?
Jason Williamson, that’s why.
The University of Minnesota commit and 3rd-ranked prospect in the Class of 2019 is the biggest game-changer in the state. He was named Associated Press First Team All-State last year, as well as the Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder has already rushed for nearly 4,000 yards in his career and is going for his third-straight Big Southeast Offensive Player of the Year award. If that wasn’t enough, Williamson will also start at safety too.
Junior Zach Wiese is the other player with experience on the Huskies offense, but Jeff Williams said he expects his inexperienced kids to fill the voids left by the departed seniors. Owatonna does have a few more pieces back on the other side of the ball, led by linebacker Ben Zappa and lineman Joseph Stransky.