It's that time of year again when local football teams dream of state tournament berths. Last year, a number of local squads had great runs into the playoffs. This year, it appears as if the stage is set for another great season of high school football.
Here is a quick glance at our local teams and their expectations for the upcoming season.
Barnum entered last season with a solid nucleus and parlayed the talent into a solid 6-2 regular season and a 7-3 overall record before bowing out of the playoffs in a loss to Moose Lake-Willow River in the Section 7AA playoffs. This season, the Bombers will need to overcome some key losses if they hope to make a similar impact in local football circles.
"Our practices have started out strong," Bomber coach Mike Klyve said. "With a lot of returning starters, we've been able to work through installs faster and we've been able to take a lot of really good reps."
Barnum lost running backs Tony Robinson and Quinn Casey as well as defensive end Lane Asperheim, offensive lineman Jordan Siekert and wide receiver Drake Weets, but the cupboard isn't bare for the Bombers.
"We return Tyler Nynas, Jacob Nynas, Sam Goodwin, Nathan Moors, Ryan Weller and Jared and Jordan Haley," Klyve said. "Also, our freshman class has looked good so far. Coming in with only seven kids in the class we weren't sure what to expect, but they have done very well."
Goals for this year's team, according to the fourth-year coach, are to improve on last year's strong record and to win the section tournament.
Perhaps the biggest unknown in local nine-man football circles will be the Carlton Bulldogs, not because of which players graduated and who returns, but more because the Bulldogs have a new coach.
After spending 12 years as an assistant coach at Duluth Denfeld before taking a coaching hiatus, Jason Crane will take the helm of the Bulldogs and try to improve on a 3-5 record and a first-round playoff loss to Wrenshall. Crane not only played for the Denfeld Hunters in high school, he also played in college for the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.
Carlton will need to overcome the losses of both Jackson Mickle and Chase Parker, who were a big part of the Bulldogs last season. Mickle played running back and linebacker, while Parker anchored the offensive and defensive lines.
The good news for the Bulldogs is the return of Jacob Santkuyl, Matt Santkuyl and Ben Soderstrom as well as Spencer Nynas and Jerod Robertson, who were two-way starters. Another key is the return of quarterback and linebacker Kaden Crane, who helps give the team stability.
"We have been a young program, but we have several players with varsity game experience," coach Crane said.
The team has had morning practices the first week of the season in hopes of avoiding potential hot weather in the afternoon. It appeared to pay off.
"Our athletes stayed healthy and focused during our first seven practices," Crane said.
Last year, the Cards ran the table in the regular season and then fell to Stephen-Argyle in the state quarterfinals after star running back Nic Johnson went out with an injury. The Cards also lost offensive lineman/defensive lineman Tanner Varo, but they return a talented stable of talent that should make things tough for Section 7 nine-man contenders.
"Our expectations are to compete for a section title," coach Jeff Gronner said.
The Cards return Kannon Korpela at running back/linebacker, Cameron Cahoon at running back/linebacker, Drew Libbon at quarterback/linebacker, Isaac Shelton at wide receiver/defensive back, Jaden Gronner at end/defensive end and Taye Anderson at defensive end in nine-man football.
Having six or seven returning starters is a huge advantage.
"Practices have been interesting so far; we are lacking numbers," Gronner said. "We have 19 players, which is our smallest number in my 20 years here."
Gronner is officially in his 21st year at Cromwell-Wright and in his 15th year as head coach.
"We've had some players dealing with muscle injuries," Gronner said. "The pleasant surprises have been the attitude and the effort of the guys in the first week."
Gronner said South Ridge would be a team to contend with at playoff time. Ironically, it was Cromwell-Wright slipping by South Ridge in the section semifinals a year ago.
After suffering only one loss during the regular season, the Eskomos barnstormed all the way to the Section 7AAA title game before dropping a 24-14 decision to Proctor. The Eskomos finished the season with an 8-2 record, with their only other loss coming in the first game of the season to Cloquet, which went all the way to the Class AAAA state championship.
With 24 years as a high school football coach and nine years as a head coach, Scott Arntson enters his third season guiding the Eskomos.
A year ago, the Eskomos relied on the big-play ability of Brandon Matteen at wide receiver and the toughness of Tyler Peterson at linebacker. This year, the Eskomos will look to Aaron Moore and Dylan Vinje to be big-play wide receivers and to lead the offense.
"We just want to compete in every game we play," Arntson said. "Practice so far has not been up to expectations yet, but this is a big week for us."
Arntson points to Proctor, Two Harbors and Greenway as teams to contend with in Section 7AAA.
Moose Lake-Willow River
The Rebels struggled through a tough regular season in which they finished just 3-5. However, things changed when the Rebels turned up things in the playoffs and rode a hot streak all the way to U.S. Bank Stadium and a state semifinal showdown, where they fell to Pipestone.
Entering his 20th season as head coach of the Rebels, Dave Louzek has kept ML-WR at the top of the section nearly every season. To expect anything less this year would be a mistake for Section 7AA teams.
"Practice has been great so far," Louzek said. "All of the kids are working hard and expectations are high. The younger players will need to step up this season for us to be successful and so far they are rising to the challenge."
After going 7-6, counting the playoff wins, the Rebels will need to overcome the losses of a solid senior class that included quarterback Ian Coil, tight end/defensive end Ryan Barrett, offensive guard/middle linebacker Dilon Louzek, offensive lineman/defensive end Dakota Frederick, offensive lineman Ethan Tomczak, defensive back Thomas Gulso, running back/defensive back Colton Little and defensive back Avery Kosloski.
"Expectations for Rebel football are always very high," Louzek said. "We lose great seniors every year and expect the returning players to step up and continue the tradition of our program."
Now entering his fifth season as head coach at South Ridge, Brent Johnson has the luxury of returning a number of starters and a lot of depth — something most local nine-man teams will not have.
"We will have some depth this year with our junior and sophomore classes," Johnson said. "I would like to see us improve every week this season and make it through the season injury-free. Our goal is to win the section."
Among the key losses for the Panthers were quarterback Nic Carlson and center Hunter Skluzacek. Key returners for the Panthers will be running back/linebacker Joe Janke, offensive end/defensive end Jayton Nelson, offensive lineman/defensive lineman Matt Kilbourn and linebacker Matt Clark.
Other coaches in the section will have a tough time gauging where the Panthers are throughout the season because South Ridge will only play one other team in the section during the regular season.
"The only team within the section that we play will be Isle and I think they will be pretty good," Johnson said. "We play a tough schedule this year and I think that will help us when we get into the playoffs."
Last season, the Wrenshall Wrens rode the 1-2 running punch of Tyler Kelley and Jared Kelley all the way to the Section 5 title game before bowing out to Cromwell-Wright. This year, the Wrens will have only one of the Kelley kids back, Jared, and will need to find production out of other players this season.
"We are struggling again this year due to a lack of numbers, which creates a lack of depth," 11-year head coach Jeremy Zywicki said. "We do have a lot of inexperience at certain positions, so that may create some problems if we get ourselves in long yardage situations."
The losses of running back/linebacker Tyler Kelley, tight end/linebacker Nick Mattson and tight end/defensive end Brennan Kelley will be tough, but knowing the backfield will still feature Jared Kelley, who rushed for 1,900 yards last season, will be of some comfort for Wrens fans.
Wrenshall will return guards Eli Krisak and Danny Merrill. Krisak will also play linebacker and Merril will play tackle on the defensive side of the ball.
"I would say that Andrew Silverio has been a pleasant surprise at tailback and has played well so far," Zywicki said. "Practices are very difficult when you have the low numbers that we do. It's very difficult to get a look on the opposing side of the ball when there we have only a handful of players."