There are plenty of unique storylines to get folks fired up about the season ahead in Class A. First off, the division has changed its name back along with the rest of the classes. Farewell to “11B” after just two seasons. Velva-Drake-Anamoose-Garrison is coming off a perfect season and looks like the favorite, but the Aggies have a new head coach. Region 1 looks strong again, but can they break through and earn the title? Read below to find out who I think can make a run at playing for the hardware in November. Plus, I share my preseason player of the year and top ten players to watch
ND Class A
How good am I at doing preseason rankings? I had the Aggies as a bubble team last year and they ended up winning every single game en route to the program’s first state title since 2010 sending legendary head coach Larry Sandy out on top. So, let that be inspiration for those teams that find themselves ranked lower than they feel they should be in the preseason.
This year, it was an easy decision to put the defending state champs at number one with six starters returning on offense and five back on defense. New head coach Matt Weidler stepped into a gold mine of a program. The returners are led by junior QB/DB Ben Schepp (2,268 pass yds, 23 TD, 5 INT; 711 rush yds, 16 TD; 67 tkls, 2 Def TD) who was named first team all-state last year as a sophomore. Schepp has all the characteristics you look for in a quarterback. He’s athletic, accurate, strong and a great decision-maker as evidenced by his 68% completion percentage last season. He’ll likely face a little more pressure this season as the Aggies must replace four starters on the offensive line. Schepp will be sharing the offensive workload with junior WR/LB Treyson Iglehart (630 rec yds, 6 TD, 2 rush TD, 3 KR TD; 65 tkls, 4 INT), junior WR/CB Reggie Bruner (625 rec yds, 7 TD; 21 tkls) and junior RB/LB Hank Bodine (432 rush yds, 7 TD; 127 tkls, 8 TFL). Not many teams in the country can tout that kind of production returning in varsity football. The Aggies averaged nearly 38 points per game last season and have a good chance to replicate that in 2023.
A lot of the same names star on that Aggie defense that was so critical in the postseason capping things off with a great goal-line stand to seal the state championship win over Central Cass last November. Bodine is a “seek-and-destroy” type of player. Put on his HUDL tape from his sophomore season and you’ll quickly see why he’s drawing interest from a lot of division one and division two colleges already. The defense also had a knack for creating turnovers last season and I think you’ll see more of the same in 2023 with the number of athletes they have in the 2nd and 3rd levels of the defense.
One thing that’s probably flying under the radar about the Aggies is the fact that they inherited a handful of players from Drake last season with an emergency co-op right before the season. Many of those players weren’t eligible to play varsity, but they practiced and played JV all year and now have a year of learning the playbook under their belts. Despite only having four seniors on the roster, this is a team that is experienced and deeper than most.
2. Central Cass
It seems like each year Tommy Butler takes the Central Cass program one step further and if he continues that trend in 2023 it could mean a state title for the Squirrels for the first time since 1980. The Squirrels were 9-2 with one playoff win in 2021 and last year they were just a few yards away from defeating Velva-D-A-G in the Dakota Bowl. It won’t be an easy path as Central Cass has to replace some key players.
The offense will take on a new identity this year after graduating the school’s all-time leading rusher Owen Wiersma and four of the team’s five starting offensive linemen. Look for senior RB/LB Isaac Wisnewski to be the lead back for the offense. He rushed for 500+ yards and 6 TD last season including a touchdown run in the state championship game. Senior QB Brayden Mitchell passed for around 1,500 yards last season and is back to direct the offense. He’s excited to have some weapons to pass to, as well! Senior WR/DB Peyton Lemar hauled in over 40 passes last year with close to 500 yards and 7 TD. The team also convinced 6’7” basketball standout Cole Holzer to come out for football and he has potential to be a scary weapon in the passing game. All-state senior lineman Tyler Cruchet is in the final weeks of his recovery from the ACL injury he suffered in the state championship game. Once he gets inserted into the lineup, the Squirrels gain one of the best big men in the state.
The Squirrels defense got better and better throughout the season last year and they’re hoping that momentum carries over into 2023. They held Bottineau, Kindred and Beulah to a combined 32 points in three playoff games. Leading tackler Marcus Biffert was the team’s leading tackler last year as a junior and should pick up right where he left off. Lemar was a ballhawk in the secondary intercepting seven passes on the year including a pick in the state title game. Cade Olson-Tingelstad and Cruchet are also among the team’s top defenders returning from last year’s squad.
The schedule opens with a bang for Central Cass as the Squirrels travel to rival Kindred on August 18th. Central Cass dealt the Vikings their only loss of the season last year in the state quarterfinal round. Learn more about this year’s Kindred team below.
As mentioned above, we’ll learn quickly how accurate my #2 and #3 predictions are when Kindred hosts Central Cass in the season opener. I gave the Squirrels the edge for now, but I think it’s a coin flip between the two along with Trinity who I have listed at #4. The Vikings have a new look on the sidelines after head coach Matt Crane left to become the AD at Bismarck High. Eric Burgad, the team’s defensive coordinator since 2014, steps in as the new head coach. It’s hard to argue with Burgad’s track record. The Vikings’ defense was dominant last season, surrendering just 8 points per game.
The defense should be solid again led by Minnesota Gopher commit Riley Sunram. The defensive end stands at 6’6” 280 lbs and knows how to drive through lineman to get to the quarterback and disrupt any run plays in the backfield. When he’s not racking up sacks and TFLs, he’s eating up double and triple teams allowing his teammates to make the play. He’s my preseason player of the year in the division because of the way he can take over the game from a lineman position. Four other starters return on that side of the ball including junior LB Hunter Bindas, junior DB Kylan Swenson and senior DL Dilon Filler.
On offense, the team added one of the best quarterbacks in the state with former Thompson quarterback Jake Starcevic moving into town. Starcevic was a 2-time all-state football player for the Tommies playing wide receiver as a freshman before moving to quarterback as a sophomore last fall. Last year, he passed for 1,518 yards and rushed for another 1,186 yards combining for 27 TD. He also led the Tommies defense with 53 solo tackles, 13 TFL and four interceptions. With a great line in front of him anchored by Sunram, he’ll cause all sorts of headaches for defensive coordinators with his outstanding athleticism at the QB spot. He’s surrounded by some talented players, too. Kylan Swenson, Cam Schwartzwalter and Jack McDonald are all speedy athletes that should put some stress on defenses much like Trey Heinrich did the past few years. Coach Burgad is looking forward to seeing some of last year’s JV players take that next step, “One of our biggest priorities is developing some of last year’s role players into every down players.”
Remember the Titans? I sure do after they went from a 4-win team in 2021 to opening the 2022 campaign with seven straight wins. A big reason for that success was the incredible offense that averaged 44 points per game, trailing only Velva-D-A-G for scoring offense in the class. Head coach John Odermann has a lot to be excited about with only losing one starter on each side of the ball.
Coming off an all-state season as a junior, senior QB Jace Kovash (66% comp., 2,100 yds, 29 TD, 4 INT, 5 rush TD) has the keys to this Ferrari-like offense. Kovash showed great poise all year and his 29:4 touchdown to interception ratio is super impressive. He’s expected to be one of the top quarterbacks in the state this fall. He has plenty of great receivers to target, as well. Brothers Jake (25 rec, 346 yds, 5 TD) and Luke Shobe (41 rec, 652 yds, 8 TD) along with Gage Glaser and Jeremiah Jilek are all seniors that gained a lot of varsity experience last year. Senior RB/LB Ty Dassinger (957 rush yds, 428 rec yds, 25 total TD; 76 tkls, 6 sacks) returns as the lead running back and has only gotten stronger and faster over the offseason. Glaser is a swiss-army knife for the offense lining up at receiver or in the backfield. It truly is a pick your poison for defenses when going up against this Titan offense that also returns most of its offensive line.
Dassinger and Jilek lead a really good linebacker crew on defense with the Shobe brothers, Glaser and Izaak Kudrna holding down the secondary. All-region selections Cade Fitterer and Tanner Roers will be looked at as the leaders on the defensive line. The continuity on defense should help the Titans improve and be more consistent on that side of the ball this season. There were too many times last year where they got involved in shootouts and had to rely on their high-scoring offense. If they want to become a legitimate state title contender, they’ll need the defense to raise their game.
The Cardinals won six games last season, their fewest wins in a year since 2015 when they finished 1-7 overall. That dismal season in 2015 was followed by a five-year run for the ages where the program went 58-3 highlighted by three consecutive perfect seasons from 2018-2020. That’s what the players on the current roster grew up idolizing and now they have a chance to make their own mark in the program’s history. “We are excited about the guys we have returning. We had some kids get valuable experience last year because of injuries,” says head coach Josh Krivarchka.
Senior QB Rayce Worley returns for his third year as the starting quarterback. He’s displayed good elusiveness and a very nice deep ball throughout his career. Junior WR/CB Cody Amble and senior WR/CB Nick Kingzett provide him with some really good weapons on the outside. Senior RB/DB Mason Romfo has been making plays for a few years now on varsity and should get a heavy workload out of the backfield.
The defense should be better this year. As Krivarchka mentioned, the team had to deal with quite a few injuries last year and that affected their depth. The silver-lining is that those injuries provided opportunities for younger kids to play and get some varsity experience under their belt. That should be a benefit in 2023 as the team looks to contend in a challenging region two against the likes of Harvey-WC, Bottineau, Thompson and new addition Cavalier. For the second straight year, the Cardinals open the season against Bishop Ryan. Langdon-E-M defeated the Lions last season 50-20.
Bishop Ryan opens with one of the toughest schedules you’ll find in Class A. For the second straight year, the Lions play Langdon-E-M and Trinity to open the year. Junior QB Jett Lundeen enters his third year as the starting quarterback. He plays an electric style of football where he’s a threat to score with his arm or legs anywhere on the field. It certainly helps to have one of the best linemen in the state blocking for him in 6’6” 280 lb NDSU commit Coy Okeson. Okeson has become a very dominant blocker throughout his varsity career, and he’ll be a key leader on both sides of the ball. The Lions were 4-6 a year ago, but I see them making a big leap this fall.
There’s plenty to be excited about regarding the Bottineau Braves football program. The team is 18-3 over the past two seasons and they’re poised to make their highly anticipated debut on their brand-new turf field in week two of the regular season. Last year, Bottineau was forced to move its home games to surrounding communities while their complex was under construction. In fact, their home playoff game last fall was in Rolette where they lost to Central Cass.
This year’s bunch of Braves are hoping to get another chance to host a playoff game. Five starters return on each side of the ball for Zach Keller’s squad. All-state selection Carson Haerer returns and will make the move from wide receiver to quarterback. He’ll have the ability to extend plays with his legs and put added stress on the defense. The line should be a strength with seniors Nick Barbot and Jake Hennings leading that group. Look for junior WR/CB Khaliel Abdurrhman and senior WR/LB Tye Marum to emerge as the top playmakers alongside Haerer this fall.
I wrote about Bishop Ryan’s tough start to the schedule above, but Des Lacs-Burlington can make a case for being just as brutal. The Lakers play Trinity and Velva-D-A-G in weeks one and three with a matchup against new program Minot North (JV this year) in between. The Lakers were blown out by both Trinity and Velva-D-A-G to open the 2022 season but won the rest of their regular season games before a first-round playoff exit. The good news for Taylor Teske’s program is that seven starters return on each side of the ball. Senior QB Paxton Ystaas moves well in the pocket and can sling it downfield with an accurate ball. The run game is spearheaded by returning all-state pick and senior Logan Rist. On defense, look for linebackers Logan Rynestad and Ty Hughes along with defensive end Kole Knecht to be some of the top tacklers.
The graduation of 2,000-yard rusher Mason Mellmer hurts, but this isn’t the first time the Miners have had to replace a dude at running back. Jim Dooley’s unique offense is a breeding ground for great rushers, and we’ll see who’s next for a team that reached the state semifinal round last year. Senior QB/DB Trace Beauchamp started both ways last fall and he’ll be the centerpiece of the offense. Beauchamp passed for nearly 800 yards and nine TDs last year to go with 366 yards on the ground and four scores. Fellow senior Ronan Klindworth (549 rush yds, 5 TD, 2 rec TD) will join him in the backfield as a top rushing threat. Coach Dooley is concerned about his depth and experience, but the Miners have such a reputation that it’s hard not to see them in the mix. Beulah has won eight or more games in eight of the last nine seasons.
Class A Preseason Player of the Year
Riley Sunram, Kindred
10 Players to Watch in Class A
- Hank Bodine, Velva-D-A-G
- Tyler Cruchet, Central Cass
- Ty Dassinger, Trinity
- Carson Haerer, Bottineau
- Jace Kovash, Trinity
- Coy Okeson, Bishop Ryan
- Logan Rist, Des Lacs-Burlington
- Ben Schepp, Velva-D-A-G
- Jake Starcevic, Kindred
- Rayce Worley, Langdon-E-M