A new look 9-man class helps usher in the 2023 ND high school football season. The division is moving from eight regions to four this year, which in many cases has created some stronger schedules across the board. The past two state champs make my top five with 2022 champ New Salem-Almont returning some standouts from last year and 2021 champ LaMoure-Litchville-Marion hoping to reload following the departure of a decorated senior class. You might notice that perennial 9-man power Cavalier is missing from my rankings. That’s because the Tornadoes were moved up to 11-man based off their success points earned by reaching the Dakota Bowl four consecutive seasons. At the top of my rankings is a North Prairie squad that is oozing with potential thanks to some dominant players in the trenches, a physical defense and an elite rusher in the backfield.
This was one of my most difficult years of ranking 9-man since I started doing this five years ago. So, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team that I didn’t list shock the state. Maybe it’ll be your favorite team!
1. North Prairie
A roster loaded with experienced talent and some monsters up front has thrust North Prairie to the top of my preseason 9-man rankings. Motivation shouldn’t be an issue either for a team that went toe-to-toe with eventual state champ New Salem-Almont in the state semifinal round last year, falling 30-26. 1st team all-state quarterback Nicholas Mears is the key loss from last year’s outstanding team. Mears (641 pass yds, 1,820 rush yds, 42 TD; 43 tkls, 6 INT) was a finalist for our Midco Sports player of the year in 9-man last season. 6’4” 170 lbs junior QB/DB Jeffry Rosinski has been pegged by head coach Josh Keller as the team’s starting quarterback. Keller describes him as a “very athletic QB with a big arm.” Senior RB/DB Blake Mattson (1,701 rush yds, 24 total TD; 49 tkls) returns as the team’s top offensive weapon. He’ll be a nightmare to slowdown in the open field on Friday nights. Line play is where the Cougars will have a huge advantage this season. 6’5” 260 lbs senior Nate Tastad, a Bison commit, returns after helping pave the way for nearly 4,000 rushing yards and did not allow a sack last season. He’ll team up with his brother Brett (6’4” 245 lbs) who has emerged as a great run blocker, too.
All those players will be expected to lead the defense, too, along with tackling machine Carter Casavant (82 tkls, 9 TFL, 3 sacks), Havlin Delong (68 tkls, 6 TFL) and Cole Henderson (37 tkls, 9 TFL, 3 sacks). Coach Keller is putting an even greater emphasis on playing very physical on both ends of the ball and he has the personnel that is capable of overwhelming other teams in that area. If the Cougars can stay healthy, they have a great shot at making the drive to the Fargodome in November to play in their first Dakota Bowl since 2015.
2. New Salem-Almont
The Holsteins were “udder”-ly dominant last season. Yes, I’ve been sitting on that one all summer. New Salem-Almont outscored teams on average 43.5 to 14.7 points per game last fall on their way to a perfect 12-0 season and the program’s first state title since 1986 (the year I was born). Not only did they wallop several teams, but they also showed toughness and grit with several close and come from behind wins in the postseason. In the title game against Cavalier, they trailed 14-6 entering the fourth quarter before rallying to win in overtime by a final of 28-26. The Holsteins graduated six seniors off that championship team but return four players with starting experience on each side of the ball. Junior Landon Tellman steps in as the team’s new starting quarterback replacing Ty Wolding. Tellman and fellow juniors RB/LB Brock Norton (1,500+ rush yds, 28 TD) and TE/LB Wyatt Kuhn (400 rec yds, 8 TD in 7 GP) should make up a dynamic trio on Friday nights. If there is any area of concern for New Salem-Almont, it’s up front where they need to replace a pair of all-state linemen in NDSU freshman AJ Heins and Levi Becker.
The bar has been raised for the program that practices under the shadow of Salem Sue and they’re embracing the target on their back. “What we accomplished last year was great, but we need to step forward now and work hard every day”, says head coach Steve Kleinjan.
With the NDHSAA making the switch from eight regions to four regions in nine-man, New Salem-Almont’s schedule gains some added difficulty. Hettinger-Scranton and Linton-HMB are a couple of additions, and both should field strong teams this fall. “I think there’s going to be a lot of close and tight games in this region. I think there are going to be a lot of good teams that are extremely competitive”, Kleinjan told us. I’m expecting another deep postseason run for the Holsteins.
The Loboes graduated a large class of 12 talented seniors that played a huge role in the team’s recent run of success winning 32 games against two losses over the past three years including a state championship in 2021. While the names change, the tradition of winning should continue for a program that knows how to pile up the points and put the clamps down defensively. Consider this. Over the past two seasons, the Loboes have been holding teams to an average of 6.3 points per game. Andy Delabarre and his coaching staff know how to get the players locked in and executing at a high level. “I believe we’ll surprise more teams than expected. We graduated a lot of seniors, but we have some nice young talent”, says Delabarre.
The Loboes don’t have a lot of size, but they always have some of the top athletes in the 9-man division. Senior Max Musland and sophomore Gunner Thielges are both outstanding athletes that can play multiple positions. Look for one of those guys to take over the vacated quarterback spot. Delabarre admits that the team might not have a ton of size, but they make up for it in toughness and football savvy.
The Loboes aren’t shying away from any challenge. Their schedule gets tougher with the addition of Sargent County moving down from 11-man. They also filled an opening in their schedule with a non-region game against my preseason #1 North Prairie. It’s hard to predict how the season will play out for this squad with such a huge roster turnover, but I couldn’t drop them out of my top five.
4. Sargent County
This ranking might be the one that raises the most eyebrows, but I think this has potential to be a special year for the Bulldogs. For the first time since 2006, the program will play in the 9-man ranks. Eric Olson’s team finished 3-6 last year competing in the always competitive region one. They struggled in the trenches and were never able to take advantage of their speed and size at the skill positions. That shouldn’t be as much of an issue competing in the 9-man game with a lot more space to roam.
The Bulldogs return nearly every starter from last season and many of those players have been starting for two or three years. “Our kids are excited for the upcoming season and have high expectations”, says Olson. Senior QB Michael Hoistad returns to quarterback the Bulldogs after passing for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He has two high-end targets to throw to in 6’5” senior TE/DE Josh Wittich (11 rec, 171 yds) and 6’4” senior WR/DE Luke Martinson (32 rec, 462 yds, 5 TD). Grady Wehlander was a standout lineman last year for the Bulldogs and should be a force in the trenches this fall.
Sargent County hasn’t surpassed the 4-win mark since 2018 but I feel that drought comes to an end this fall. The Bulldogs don’t exactly dip their toes in the water to 9-man either. They open against a LaMoure-Litchville-Marion program that is 32-2 over the past three seasons.
5. New Rockford-Sheyenne-Maddock
The Rockets haven’t won a playoff game since 2019, but that drought should end this fall with a talented squad set to take the field in 2023. New Rockford-Sheyenne is co-oping with Maddock this year which gives the program a good boost for depth. Maddock had previously co-oped with Leeds to form Benson County. Head coach Elliott Belquist is excited about his skill players. He points to Connor Knatterud, Logan Maddock, Logan Fossen, Macyn Olson and Easton Benz as some of the names you’ll hear quite often on Friday nights. Knatterud was on pace for a big year as a junior before a severe concussion ended his season in late September. Knatterud still managed to rush for nearly 600 yards and nine touchdowns in six games in 2022. He’s a standout track athlete that can turn on the jets in a hurry. Meanwhile, Logan Maddock is one of those players coming over to New Rockford from Maddock. He’s been a top linebacker and quarterback for the past few years for Benson County.
The Rockets have an impressive 40 kids out for football this year including 21 juniors and seniors. They get to test their new and improved roster right out the gates against a North Star team that thumped them 56-26 last year. The Rockets are hoping for a successful launch to the 2023 campaign with long-term hopes of reaching the Fargodome in November.
After struggling mightily from 2017-2020, the South Border program has really turned around in recent years. The Mustangs are 15-4 over the past two seasons with all four losses coming to either New Salem or Grant County/Flasher. The offense produced a lot of fireworks last season, scoring 38+ points in all seven of their wins. They also gave eventual state champ New Salem its toughest test in the regular season before falling by a final of 36-28. Senior QB/DB Daniel Schumacher is the top player to watch for the Mustangs this fall.
The Storm finished 7-3 last year and claimed the region six title. Things will get tougher as they combine with the former region five programs to make up region four. Hopefully, that makes sense for everyone! It sets up a daunting schedule as Napoleon-G-S and Linton-HMB have been added to the schedule. All-state QB/DB Javin Friesz (971 pass yds, 12 TD; 868 rush yds, 12 TD) is back for his senior season and one of the best dual threat quarterbacks you could ask for. Depth is a concern along the offensive and defensive lines, but this is a roster that should push for a playoff run.
Who was the highest scoring team in 9-man last season? Not New Salem. Not LaMoure-L-M. No, it was Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn who averaged a ridiculous 48 points per game. But as the old cliché goes “offense wins games and defense wins championships.” The quick strike offense led to a fatigued defense that couldn’t slow many teams down as the opposition averaged 36 points per game. Junior QB/DB Walker Braaten is a highlight waiting to happen. He has some elite athleticism and will cause a lot of headaches this season for teams in region three. W-N-G recorded two playoff wins last year before being knocked out by North Prairie in the quarterfinal round. We’ll see if their defense can make some strides and turn this team into a legit threat to play inside the Fargodome in November.
After winning the 9-man state title in 2020, the Lions have spent the past two seasons in 11B compiling a combined record of 7-10. Now, they feel like they’re back where they belong. I feel they have a group that can be right in the mix of a challenging region four with the likes of New Salem-Almont, Grant County/Flasher and South Border among others.
The Maroons are a bit of a dark horse. They put together a perfect regular season last year en route to claiming the region 8 title only to have their season come to an end in an absolute shootout with Westhope-N-G in their opening playoff game. When the dust settled, the Sioux defeated the Maroons 70-66. Divide County loses some decorated seniors like Easton Eriksmoen and Wyatt Caraballo, but they have some youth that registered a lot of experience in blowout games last fall.
9-Man Preseason Player of the Year
Nate Tastad, North Prairie
10 Players to Watch in 9-Man
- Walker Braaten, Westhope-N-G
- Deng Deng, Four Winds
- Javin Friesz, Grant County/Flasher
- Wyatt Kuhn, New Salem-Almont
- Luke Martinson, Sargent County
- Blake Mattson, North Prairie
- Trevor Moos, Napoleon-G-S
- Brock Norton, New Salem-Almont
- Daniel Schumacher, South Border
- Garrett Westlind, North Star