This class should be the most competitive of all at the top. You could mix up my top four teams and put them in any order and I’d be fine with it. Each team has their own set of great strengths paired with some question marks. North is a veteran group but needs to be better defensively. Will the return of some injured players help South’s offense match its dominant defense? Jamestown has the championship pedigree, but last year’s senior class will be tough to replace. Red River has experience on the line and a high-end talent at QB, but they’re unproven at the skill positions. All I can say is sit back and enjoy the chaos to come in Class AA this season!
How will the Spartans follow up their first Dakota Bowl appearance since the turn of the millennium? Perhaps, they’ll finish the job this time around and parade back to campus alongside 19th avenue with a trophy in their hands. With nine starters returning on each side of the ball, the stars seem to be aligning for the Spartans to be the favorite in Class AA and that’s right where I’m putting them. Our preseason player of the year in the division, Peder Haugo, will try to build off an impressive junior campaign in which he rushed for 1,431 yards and 25 touchdowns. The NDSU commit was also a tackling machine on defense finishing with a team-high 12 tackles for loss including 4.5 sacks from his linebacker position. Senior QB/DB Ethan Welk (1,389 pass yds, 15 TD, 11 INT; 455 rush yds, 2 TD) is poised to take another leap with one year of being a varsity starter under his belt. Welk helped recruit basketball star Jeremiah Sem to the football team last year and it paid off with Sem hauling in 44 catches for 684 yards and eight scores en route to 2nd team all-state honors. 6’4” senior Joe Rose and 6’6” senior Carter Zeller are a couple of twin towers at the tight end spot, and they bookend an offensive line that returns experience, too. A lot of those same players will be looked at to lead on defense, as well. The team was dealt a blow in the offseason with a season-ending injury sustained by linebacker Gus Maughan (61.5 tkls, 5 TFL). Fortunately, the team still returns three of their top five tacklers from last year’s squad led by Sam Fritel (57.5 tkls, 4.5 TFL), Parker Dosch (38.5 tkls) and Haugo. North’s special teams’ unit will be dangerous, too. Max Watson made 4 of 5 field goal attempts last year and hammered home 45 of his 48 extra point attempts.
The biggest challenge for this group will be proving that it can be consistent. After getting off to a sizzling 4-0 start last year, the Spartans won just one of their next five games. They sputtered into the postseason but were able to regroup with wins over Valley City and South to reach the state championship game. That wasn’t the only championship game last season that a lot of these players took part in either. Several of the key players on the football team starred on the basketball court last winter and helped Fargo North win its first state basketball title since 2006. With a great mix of varsity experience, talent and championship pedigree, head coach Adam Roland has a roster constructed to do something special. Will the Spartans be able to capitalize and add more hardware to the trophy case? We’ll find out in November.
We travel four miles south to find my number two team on the preseason rankings and that’s North’s biggest (most obvious) rival Fargo South. The Bruins made a sizable leap last season jumping from a 4-6 mark in 2021 to a 7-4 record and playoff win in 2022. This year, I think a Dakota Bowl appearance for the first time since 2013 is very much in play if they’re able to avoid the injury bug that bit them last season. Head coach Tyler Kosel says, “We return a lot on both sides of the football and will be led by a big senior class. We will need to remain healthy and return some players from injury from last year that will be impact players.”
The Bruins’ defense was a huge strength last season. They didn’t allow more than 14 points to an 11A foe until their 26-7 semifinal loss to North. That trend should continue in 2023 with seven starters returning from that unit led by 1st team all-state defensive lineman Cole Kegbeh. Kegbeh registered 47 tackles last season including a trio of sacks and 13 tackles for loss. The linebacker unit should be solid with All-EDC pick Kolby Nissen (39.5 tkls, 6 TFL), Abu Trawally (24.5 tkls, 4 INT) and Dorian Sandness anchoring the group. Sandness can’t wait to get on the field after suffering a torn ACL in week one of last year. The secondary returns Damarion Semanko (30 tkls) and Jerry Gibson (7 PBU).
Offensively, the Bruins need to find more consistency. The injury to RB Dorian Sandness really threw a wrench into their plans last season. That forced others to step up in that running back spot like Damarion Semanko (779 rush yds, 7 TD) and Kolby Nissen (272 rush yds, 3 TD; 524 pass yds, 3 TD) who converted from quarterback. Brevin Wark (724 pass yds, 8 TD, 3 INT) took over under center midway through the season and displayed good composure for a sophomore. He’ll enter his junior season with a ton of talent surrounding him. In addition to the run game, the Bruins return 2nd team all-state receiver George Hansegard (25 rec, 595 yds, 3 TD) and NDSU commit Reis Kessel (18 rec, 166 yds, 2 TD) at tight end. The offensive line is an experienced group, as well, led by All-EDC pick Quinn Mears.
The 2-time defending state champs check in at number three and I have no doubt that they’ll use that as motivation entering the season. The reason for the drop is the graduation of 11 talented seniors including six all-state picks. Those are some significant losses, but the Blue Jays also have a program that’s been building a lot of positive momentum the last few seasons. Head coach Bill Nelson is excited about his participation numbers and optimistic that the team will continue to be strong contenders in the division. “The 2023 team has a lot of potential to be a deep and balanced football team. A good amount of work has been put in but a lot more work needs to be put in to get where they would like to be by the time the season starts.”
The Blue Jays return six starters on both sides of the ball. The offensive and defensive lines should be a strength with players like Bo Nelson (all-state last year), Jack Van Berkom, Colin Conway and Vaughn Romsdal either paving the way on offense or applying the pressure on defense. Josh Robertson returns with the most experience at running back after rushing for close to 500 yards and five touchdowns in 2022. For the first time in a while the starting quarterback job is up for grabs following the graduation of one of the most decorated players in school history, Payton Hochhalter, who passed for 2,630 yards and recorded 44 total touchdowns last season. According to Nelson, there will be two individuals vying for the QB spot: junior Ryan Kallenbach and junior Thomas Newman. Whoever earns the starting gig has some good weapons on the perimeter to target in junior Nate Walz and senior Tyson Jorissen. Walz caught a couple of touchdown passes in last year’s state championship game. The Blue Jays have some holes to fill but they have a group that appears to have bought in, so don’t rule a 3-peat out of the question just yet.
4. Red River
The Roughriders have been on the rise the last few years and hope to really make their mark in 2023. This year’s senior class experienced a winless varsity season in 2020, four wins in 2021 and eight wins and a trip to the state semifinals last fall. The Roughriders went 4-0 against east region foes in the regular season last year and scored a playoff win over Wahpeton before ending their season with a loss to Jamestown in the final four.
The offensive and defensive lines should be a strength with all-state pick Lawson Lotysz, Logan Wasylow and JB Walters returning. That trio was part of a group that helped Red River rush for 2,281 yards last season. Junior QB/DB Pearce Parks will relish the opportunity to play behind that group again. I believe Parks has the talent to be the best quarterback in this class and if he delivers Red River could very well be competing for a state championship in November. Parks passed for 1,217 yards and 10 TD last season while also scoring nine times on the ground. Senior WR/DB Zach Oehlke is one of few returners at the skill positions and he only played about half the season last year due to injury.
In year one with the Knights, head coach Jake Schauer helped the program double both its win total (4-6 last year) and its season point total (averaged 25.5 ppg). The team could’ve easily folded over with a 1-4 record at the midway point of the season, but instead they won three of their final four contests to earn a playoff berth. Central returns four starters on each side of the ball including first-team all-state RB/WR/DB Jack Simmers (45 rec, 660 yds, 6 TD), DE/TE Erick Paye (11.5 tkls, 5.5 TFL) and TE/DE Tray Kuntz (38 rec, 521 yds, 3 TD). Kuntz and Paye have committed to play for UND at the next level. The returning playmakers on offense will hopefully lessen the blow of losing last year’s all-state quarterback Dylan Lamont to graduation. Noah Morkve has the inside track at taking over the starting quarterback spot, but Simmers has been mentioned as a possibility, as well. Whoever earns the nod will be trying to build off a very successful passing attack from 2022 which saw the Knights pass for an EDC/11A leading 2,033 yards.
Central will need to make significant improvements defensively in order to be taken seriously as a state title contender. The Knights struggled in that facet of the game with a few exceptions being the 19-9 loss to Red River and the season-opening shutout win over Watford City. Coach Schauer points to the trenches as the most critical area where the team needs to improve. The Knights are faced with the same tough schedule to start. After the season opener at Watford City, they’ll play North, South, Jamestown and Red River in consecutive weeks.
After an up and down season and 4-6 record in 2022, the Midgets are hoping to become a more consistent bunch in 2023. Five starters return on each side of the ball for John Tuchscherer’s squad. Senior Stephen Zawodny and junior Shayden Jackson-Zietz each spent some time operating the offense last season at quarterback. They’ll continue to battle it out for the starting spot. Other key players are senior TE/LB Kaeden Krieg and RB/LB Colin Tschetter who earned all-region honors last season. Tuchscherer says, “We had a great summer. Our numbers at workouts were as good as they’ve ever been.”
The Firebirds finished 3-6 last year and narrowly missed out on a playoff spot last fall. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the 2023 season for Firebird fans. The group will be led by 2-time all-state pick and senior CB/WR Drew Hofstad. Hofstad caught five touchdown passes last year and has been one of the top defensive backs in the state for a few years now. Senior Beau Brodina returns at quarterback after passing for 500+ yards, rushing for 600+ yards and accounting for 12 combined touchdowns as a junior. The Firebirds varsity roster consisted of a lot of juniors and sophomores last season and they’re hoping that experience pays off with some huge growth and ultimately wins in 2023.
The Hi-Liners were a big surprise last season. After winning just three games in each of the two previous seasons, Valley City opened the year on a 7-game winning streak. The Hi-Liners shot up the media poll, climbing to #1 following a 34-6 victory over defending state champ Jamestown in early October. The peak of their season was followed by the fallout. The next week they lost a heartbreaker to Grand Forks Central and finished their season on a 3-game win streak. The Hi-Liners graduated three all-state seniors and will also be without returning all-state senior Zach Sykora (46 tkls, 14 TFL; 777 total yds, 7 TD) who will be sidelined this fall due to a torn ACL. Look for new head coach Travis Engen to lean on the experienced and talented senior RB/DB Ethan Miller (607 rush yds, 14 total TD) throughout the season.
Class AA Preseason Player of the Year
Peder Haugo, North
10 Players to Watch in Class AA
- Drew Hofstad, Devils Lake
- Cole Kegbeh, South
- Lawson Lotysz, Red River
- Treyton Mauch, Wahpeton
- Ethan Miller, Valley City
- Pearce Parks, Red River
- Erick Paye, Central
- Jeremiah Sem, North
- Jack Simmers, Central
- Nate Walz, Jamestown