Section 1AAA: Lourdes looks prepared to soar
Lourdes didn’t look in much shape to make a return trip to the state football tournament for the ninth time in the last 12 years. Not a season ago, after getting rocked by Stewartville 56-3 in Week 7.
But the Eagles got things together in the nick of time and returned to a state tournament that they’d won the year before. They did it despite having a starting lineup that was filled almost entirely with juniors.
Which brings Eagles fans to this season. Yes, expectations are high for Lourdes, which returns 18 of 22 starters. Still, longtime Eagles coach Mike Kesler can’t help but be cautious.
“Potential is one thing,” Kesler said. “But reaching your potential is another. But these guys worked extremely hard in the offseason and they’re hungry.”
Some of that hunger has to do with how their season ended. Lourdes was flattened in the first round of the state tournament by eventual champion St. Croix Lutheran. SCL stuck it to the Eagles, 61-29.
“They were disappointed with how they played against St. Croix Lutheran,” Kesler said. “That motivated them.”
A motivated bunch of Eagles might be too much for anyone to handle in Section One, Class AAA this season. Still, while Lourdes is the favorite, Kesler has a high regard for a pack of section teams. Stewartville especially has his attention.
“Stewartville is looking good,” Kesler said. “They’ve got some very good guys back and some good younger players.”
In terms of players to watch, Kesler considers Pine Island running back/linebacker Josh Navratil to be as good as it gets in Section 1AAA.
“He’s big and he’s fast,” Kesler said. “That’s why he is getting Division I football offers (University of North Dakota).”
• LOURDES •
Pat Leary and Jake Groteboer are as scary a 1-2 running back duo as you’ll find in Section 1AAA.
Leary is 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, runs a 4.6 40, and makes decisive cuts. Groteboer is 6-1, 225 and runs over the top of (or straight through) just about anyone.
Toss in fellow senior quarterback Matthew Hayford, who can throw, run and plays the position with intelligence, and that’s a Lourdes backfield that has the potential to give opponents fits.
That trio — along with a pack of mostly junior talent last year — was enough to get the Eagles back to the state tournament in 2017. Things figure to be that good and better for Lourdes this season.
“To have this many guys back with experience is new for us,” said Lourdes coach Mike Kesler, whose team finished 9-3 last year. “And this is a really competitive group.”
Leary ran for more than 1,000 yards last year and made the transition from quarterback to running back late in the season. Kesler plans on shifting the speedy senior to all parts of the field on offense this year.
Lourdes also looks good up front, led by big and athletic seniors Matthew Sather (6-4, 230) and Michael Frain (6-2, 225).
The Lourdes defense was vulnerable at times a season ago, including giving up 56 points to Stewartville and 61 in the state quarterfinals to eventual champion St. Croix Lutheran. Teams averaged 24 points per game against the 9-3 Eagles. Lourdes scored 25 ppg.
Two more players who Kesler is excited about are Ben Limburg and Trey Billmeier. Kesler describes Limburg, who also plays defense, as one of the best kickers in the state and that he was nailing field goals from 50 yards this summer. Billmeier is turning into a standout safety.
• STEWARTVILLE •
Welcome to the Garrett Mueller era. After six years as the Tigers offensive coordinator, the 34-year-old Mueller is now sitting in the big chair. In January, he was hired to replace 11th-year head coach Aaron Meyer, who stepped down after compiling a 67-52 record.
“It’s exciting,” said Mueller, who helped the team to a 5-4 record last year. “It’s one of those jobs where you’re always busy. But I enjoy that grind and I enjoy the football side of it. It’s been a good transition and we’ve got most of our coaching staff back.”
Mueller has plenty to work with in terms of players. A pack of starters is back, including quarterback Will Tschetter; running backs Josh Buri, Nathan Johnson and Elton Myhre; receiver Hunter Voigt; and two-way linemen Shane Byrne and Carter Jannsen. One lineman who is not back is Parker Grotjohn, a senior who tore his ACL three weeks ago and is out for the season. He was an all-district player last year.
“We’ve got a really good group of seniors who are back,” Mueller said. “We’ve got a really good group on both sides of the ball, but our biggest concern is a lack of depth.”
Buri is as impressive a prospect as any of the Tigers. Just a sophomore, the 6-foot, 200-pounder rushed for 600 yards last year.
Voigt is also an eye-catcher. He’s 6-5 and with excellent speed. He had around 40 catches last year.
On defense, the Tigers return eight starters. Byrne is the leader of that group. He is 6-1, 270.
• PLAINVIEW-E-M •
It was a frustrating start to the season a year ago for the Bulldogs. But the end was enough to excite and motivate.
After winning just twice in the regular season, P-E-M notched a pair of upsets in the playoffs, first over Stewartville, then Byron.
It led to a busy summer of weightlifting and training by a pack of newly dedicated P-E-M players.
“We created some momentum the end of last year and we want to build on that,” Bulldogs coach Kevin Lamb said. “It brought a lot of confidence back.”
P-E-M looks well stocked along the offensive and defensive lines with such players as Gus Ruiz, Justyn Hofschulte, Connor Jones, John Becklund and Josh Pecos. Jacob LaBare will also play tight end and was among the team’s leading tacklers last year at free safety. Kole Riess will also play tight end.
“Our line is likely the best part of our football team,” Lamb said. “It’s where our most experience is.”
That offensive line will look to protect and block for a talented backfield in quarterback Joe Irish, and running backs Carter Marx and Derek Lockwood.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Irish took over at QB well into last season. He’s got a strong arm as well as great confidence, according to Lamb.
“He’s really a special kid,” Lamb said. “He’s got a unique ability to let stuff go and think about whatever is next. He’s steady and confident.”
• BYRON •
Byron has the task of replacing some high-end players.
Michael Coble, Luke Barth, Bjorn Knudson and Sean LaPlante are just a few of them. Coble was one of the top athletes in the Rochester area and quarterbacked the team to a 6-4 overall record, including 1-1 in the playoffs.
Coble threw for around 1,000 yards and ran for another 500.
But the Bears take comfort in the return of running back/defensive back Ben Stienessen. He was the team’s top rusher last year, gaining nearly 800 yards. That included a combined 327 in two playoff games.
Other prominent returners are quarterback/defensive back Caleb Christensen, receiver/linebacker Connor Strain, tight end/defensive back Luke Blazing, and offensive/defensive linemen Will Holz and and Lucas Birch.
Besides having some talent to work with, Byron coach Ben Halder likes the position his team put itself in this summer.
“Our seniors and underclassmen had a great summer in the weight room and at camps, but need to transfer that momentum to practice and Friday nights,” Halder said. “We have great leadership with our seniors and are looking forward to seeing our kids grow on and off the field. We’ve built our program on love, trust, commitment and best effort, and as a team we have the expectation that we will see continued improvement in our program.”
Byron ended last season winning four of its last five games. Included in that was a 49-28 stunner over Stewartville.
• PINE ISLAND •
The Panthers have a great guy to build around: Josh Navratil.
Honors showered the running back/linebacker when last season was done: Post Bulletin All-Area Team; Southeast District, Red Sub-District Offensive Player of the Year and All-District. That came after Navratil rushed for 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Pine Island coach John Stapelton is quick to point out what the strength of this team will be, led by Navratil.
“It’s our skill positions and knowledge of our system,” said Stapleton, whose Panthers finished 4-5 last year and lost 15-9 to Zumbrota-Mazeppa in the playoffs.
Included among the returning skill guys is tight end/defensive end Logan Andrist. He had more than 400 yards receiving and three touchdowns last season. Things might be a bit tougher for him this year, though, with three-year starting quarterback Keegan Majerus having graduated. Majerus threw for over 1,000 yards last year.
Also gone are all five of Pine Island’s starting offensive linemen. “Several skill positions are very strong and our defensive backfield should be much improved,” Stapleton said. “(But) we will have to depend heavily on our sophomores and juniors to contribute on varsity since our senior class is quite small.”
Pine Island’s best win last year came against Stewartville, 14-9 in Week 4.
• ZUMBROTA-MAZ. •
If the Cougars’ season comes down to work ethic and smarts, you’ve got to love their chances.
“We’ve got a good group of kids who have put a ton of time in during the summer,” Z-M coach Darin Raasch said. “We’re excited to get the season started.”
Z-M finished 4-6 last year after reaching the Section 1AA title game the year before.
The Cougars have one obvious star, senior Jacob Bennett. The 6-foot, 205-pound running back/linebacker has already received multiple Division II college offers, and he committed to Minnesota State, Mankato in late August.
Raasch has something unique in the four-year starter who rushed for 785 yards and eight touchdowns last year, as well as had 70 tackles, one sack, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
“His work ethic is absolutely second to none,” Raasch said. “After our first team workout, which was a tough one, Jacob went into the shed and worked out on his own. He’s a driven young man.”
Raasch, who had a pack of impact players graduate last spring, likes the new guys who are stepping in. He especially likes their intelligence and ability to communicate and adjust on the football field.
Impact returnees from a year ago figure to be Cole Peters (wide receiver), Zach Hutton (wide receiver/cornerback), Nathan Menskink (played five different defensive positions last year, as well as wide receiver), and Jack Heglund (offensive lineman).
• DOVER-EYOTA •
Dover-Eyota does not have strength in numbers. Just 29 Eagles are out for football, grades 9-12.
D-E also doesn’t have much size, with just two or three players over 200 pounds.
“We are small and we don’t have much depth,” D-E coach Brian Harris said.
But what the Eagles do have is one of the more intriguing and talented lineups in Section 1AAA. That starts with 6-8 quarterback Brady Williams. A junior and also a prolific basketball player, Williams sustained a season-ending injury in his team’s football opener last year. That came after throwing for more than 1,000 yards and running for 300 as a freshman.
Williams is healthy and under the center once again for D-E, putting a smile on Harris’ face.
He’s not the only fine one on this D-E football team. Williams has a great target to throw to in 6-foot, 195-pound senior Jack Studer. Studer comes complete with a ridiculous 37-inch vertical jump and had a school-record seven interceptions at defensive back last year. Next to him at receiver will by Brady Glynn. Glynn led D-E in receiving two years ago, but missed all of last season with an injury.
Also returning for D-E are two excellent running backs, Isaac Bushman and Marcus Otomo.
“We’re very talented in the backfield,” Harris said.
Mikey Nelson and Joe Callahan also give D-E two returning offensive linemen.
• LA CRESCENT •
The Lancers have won just once in the last two years. The “W” came last season when they beat Lake City 18-0 in Week 7.
Optimism is higher now, though, as La Crescent returns a pack of starters. That includes quarterback Zach Todd, receiver/defensive back Ty Mallicoat, receiver/linebacker Thomas Kiesau, receiver/linebacker Clayton Jorgenson, receiver/linebacker Romy Whitford, receiver/linebacker Colton Jorgenson and receiver/defensive back Dyan Worrell.
Optimism also exists because of the way the Lancers ended last season. After losing to Stewartville 14-0, it then beat Lake City, lost to a Plainview-Elgin-Millville team that was excellent in the playoffs 24-13, then barely lost to powerful Lourdes 17-14 in the first round of the playoffs. Todd threw for 152 yards and two scores in the loss to P-E-M.
So, La Crescent coach Ryan Vinzant is excited to see where that momentum can take his team.
“We have a great group of seniors who are coming back to lead our team and are excited about what the season has in store for us,” Vinzant said. “Our low numbers will continue to be our Achilles heel and we are continually recruiting kids to join football.”
This is Vinzant’s second year as Lancers head coach.