Graduation, new 9-man teams add uncertainty to 2019 race

LEFT: Isaac Griffin will score after winning this aerial battle in Saturday scrimmage against Lanesboro. RIGHT: Caden Grinde will be a major factor in Spring Grove's spread attack as the Lions seek to extend their string of two regular season championships and state titles. The junior receiver is shown here with a deep reception against Lanesboro during Saturday's scrimmages. Photo by S. Lee Epps
S. Lee Epps

Predicting the champion of the East Sub-district (of 9-man football South District) is a more perilous task than ever before. There is the usual deliberation concerning the graduation losses of the perennial top two or three teams. But this year, there is the added uncertainty of two new rivals playing 9-man for the first time, Kingsland and Southland.

Members of the East Sub-district of the South District have won the last six state 9-man championships and have played in the state title game in nine of the last 11 years.  

Spring Grove has taken the last two state titles after Grand Meadow had swept the preceding four state crowns. The Superlarks launched that amazing streak one season after being the 2012 state runner-up.

Lanesboro was the state runner-up in 2010. Houston won the state championship in 2008.

The 2019 race

The last two year's top two, Spring Groveand Houston, both sustained similar severe graduation losses. Starting quarterbacks are gone. They each bring back few regulars on each side of the ball, but both programs have a couple of promising newcomers. Will that be enough to reject the re-emergence of perennial power Grand Meadow? The Superlarks return almost everyone from last year's third place team.

Fourth place last fall, Randolphis off to 11-man football this year. On paper, fifth place Mabel-Cantonand sixth place Lanesboroare in similar situations. Both bring back a proven running back, but both are without last year's quarterback and leading receiver. Both are most experienced in the trenches - with the big guys up front. 

How well they match up on the field will be evident soon as they open the season this Friday against each other in one of the week's most intriguing matchups.

Seventh place LeRoy-Ostranderand last place Lyle/Pacelliare not yet projected to be in the championship picture, but both have new head coaches and greater numbers. That points to a better future as they open the season against each other Friday.

A closer look

Experience and depth points to perennial contender Grand Meadow(7-3, 5-2 East), which graduated only two seniors from a deep but younger-than-usual 36-player roster and led the sub-district in both total defense and scoring defense. 

By far, GM was also the least penalized team in the East Sub-district. Coach Gary Sloan says this may be the most speed he has had in 27 seasons at the helm.

All starters are back, including four all-district standouts - senior Wyatt Weiss (C/DT) along with juniors Ben Kraft (TE/DE) and Luke Speer (RB/DB) plus senior Nolan Skifter (RB/LB), who in eight games, rushed for 836 yards (10 TD). Only four other teams bring back even one all-district performer. 

GM is one of the few teams that return a starting quarterback.  Evan Oehlke (6-1, 170), in the eight-game regular season, passed for 607 yards (5 TD) and rushed for 466 (6 TD).

Despite returning only three starters on each side of the ball, Spring Grove(14-0, 7-0 East) will not sneak up on anyone. However, the Lions graduated three First Team All-State players and one Honorable Mention, including a Minnesota Mr. Football finalist. 

Senior offensive lineman/linebacker and leading tackler Kyle Hagen is the lone all-district performer coming back.

But expectations remain high. Last year at this time, the Lions were also returning only three starters on each side of the ball and repeated as state champions

Spring Grove, with nine straight seasons with eight or more wins has shown the ability to consistently reload under reigning State 9-Man Coach of the YearZach Hauser, now entering his 13th season as head coach. 

Houston(9-2, 6-1 East) has been state-ranked during the last two seasons with three straight wins over Grand Meadow and reached the section finals last autumn. 

The Hurricanes lost only to the state champion Spring Grove last fall (twice), but like the Lions, graduated four all-district players. Ten 'Canes picked up sheepskins, including the entire backfield and quarterback, the leading receiver, the top three rushers, the top three in pass interceptions and the sub-district sack leader.

But coming back is senior lineman Alec Francis, who receivedHonorable Mention All-Districtlast fall. Senior Ben Walters was the sub-district's leading kick returner and the league's fourth leading punter, who ranked sixth in league sacks. 

But all eyes will also be on the 9-man newcomers. Most observers expect Southlandto contend for this year's 9-man championship after last year's squad went 5-5 in 11-man competition.  The Rebels won four of their last six, including a playoff game

Only one of five All-District players return  - senior linebacker Carter Schmitz was the sub-district Defensive Player of the Year. He is one of eight Rebels weighing 200 pounds or more on the 27-player roster. 

Southland is one of only four teams bringing back a starting quarterback.

If indeed, the Rebels and Superlarks are battling near the top, the schedule will be a crucial factor. GM and Southland do not play each other. But the Rebels visit Houston in this week's season opener.

Kingslandhas had less recent success in 11-man, coming off back-to-back 1-8 seasons that followed a 50-game losing streak from 2012 into 2017. After winning the Class AA state championship in 2003 and finishing state runner-up the following season, the Knights have won only three games (3-60) over the past seven seasons.

But interest is strong, and numbers are good. After graduating only three seniors, there are 32 names on the roster, including 15 with significant experience from 2018. Most rivals do not return a quarterback, but junior William Jahn is back for Kingsland.

 Coach Brent Stinson likes the player leadership of these Knights and says speed is a strength. Their transition to 9-man begins this Friday with a stern test at Grand Meadow.

Before overlooking the Knights, it might be wise to consider Spring Grove in 2003. The Lions embarked on their 9-man debut on a 20-game losing streak during previous 11-man frustration. But in that first 9-man season  (that also included four 11-man contests), the Lions won 12 straight games before a narrow loss in the state semi-finals in the Metrodome. It can be risky to overlook 9-man newcomers.

The future appears bright for Lanesboro(3-6, 2-5 East), having graduated only six seniors from a 36-player roster and despite featuring only three seniors this fall. But earning diplomas were all three all-district players plus an honorable mention. The Burros graduated the leading receiver plus a quarterback, who was also the second leading rusher.

Honorable Mention All-Districtjunior Caden Anderson was the second leading receiver and led the pass defense with two interceptions. But he is currently on the injured list with uncertain availability this season.

But Lanesboro was primarily a rushing team with a freshman taking most of the handoffs. Now a sophomore, JT Rein averaged 4.1 yards per carry (590 yards). Senior Nate Betz was the fourth leading rusher, averaging 7.2 yards per handoff (237 yards). Junior Bodie Mayer was the fourth leading tackler (51) and was second with four and half sacks. 

This squad is young but deep and could very well make significant strides as the season progresses.

Mabel-Canton(5-5, 3-4 East) has some crucial positions to restock, having graduated six two-way starters, including an All-State player and an Honorable Mention. 

Retaining eligibility is All-Districtjunior Gavin Johnson (RB/LB) who averaged 5.7 yards per carry while rushing for 1,013 yards (9 TD) in 10 games. Senior Ethan Underbakke (WB/DB) received Honorable Mention All-District. However, most experience is among the linemen.

LeRoy-Ostrander(2-7, 1-6 East) graduated only two seniors, but one was a three-time All-District quarterback. Former assistant, now head coach Trevor Carrier welcomes back Honorable Mention All-District lineman Tanner Kasel and 6-4 senior receiver Riley Olson who led the sub-district in receptions with 44 (565 yards). Junior Andrew Lohuis led league pass defenders with four interceptions.

Senior Carter Johnson led the Cardinals in rushing last year (656 yards). Former wide receiver, sophomore Chase Johnson, is the new starting signal caller. He was the league's fourth leading kick returner last year as a freshman while averaging 19 yards per runback. 

Adding nine freshmen brings numbers up to 27. This will be the fourth season since there were not enough Cardinals to field a varsity team in 2015.

Lyle/Pacelli(0-8, 0-7 East) has suffered through 27 consecutive losses and graduated seven seniors from a scant 16-player roster. However, some athletes are back after not playing football the last season or two, helping the Athletics greatly increase their number of players to 27.

Taking the reins is Brad Walter, the fifth head coach in five seasons.  But he is not new to L/P, having coached many of these boys in junior high. 

L/P does bring back a starting quarterback. All-Districtjunior Jed Nelson passed for 1,135 yards and 10 touchdowns in his second season as the starting signal-caller. He also punted and was the Athletics' leading rusher.

Junior Zach Bollingberg was the league's fifth leading receiver with 32 catches for 562 yards.