2023 ND High School AAA Football Season Preview

How will Class AAA football follow up one of the most exciting and unpredictable seasons in big school history? A 0-5 team reaching the Dakota Bowl was one surprise, while Shanley delivered another by winning the big school title just four years after their move back up to the state’s highest level. The Class produced a goldmine of college talent and entering this year I expect some new stars to shine! Read up on who I feel will be in the chase for the hardware this fall.


1. Shanley

For the first time since 1983, the Shanley Deacons took home the state title in North Dakota’s highest division of high school football. It was the goal for head coach Troy Mattern and his staff when they arrived at Shanley in 2017. After rising to the top of Class AA in the first two seasons under Mattern claiming the state title in 2018, they made the move up to Class AAA. Now, the question is how long will they be able to stay atop the big school mountain?

The Deacons graduated five starters from their high scoring offense from a year ago, including Midco Sports Player of the Year Michael Rostberg who passed for over 3,000 yards. They’ll also need to replace the production from their tall pass catchers in Vuciri Hakim and Conner Kraft. What they do return is quite a bit of speed with receivers Kaden Christmann (22 rec, 253 yds, 4 TD) and Sam Ovsak (51 rec, 753 yds, 10 TD). That duo gives new starting quarterback Landon Meier, a senior, some reliable options right off the bat. Meier is an outstanding athlete that’s already been playing varsity football as a defensive back the last few years. His strength and athleticism will impress a lot of people once the season gets underway. Leading rusher Adam Leininger also returns after rumbling for 538 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior last season.

Defensively, Leininger paced the team with 70 tackles last year including 10.5 tackles for loss. He might not be the flashiest player on Friday nights, but he’ll be one of the most feared and he rarely leaves the field. Adam’s twin brother Jordan (44.5 tkls, 5 PBU) is another one of the eight returning starters on the defensive side of the ball. Senior Cam Ahlers is a player to keep an eye on at the defensive end spot. He can get up field in a hurry and wreak havoc in the backfield. He’s also pound for pound one of the strongest players in the state. Shanley’s spread offense always gives the opposition trouble and I think we’ll see their defense continue to make strides with a lot of experience returning. Don’t be surprised if we see the Deacons playing at the dome again in November.

2. Sheyenne

The Mustangs had their streak of three straight Dakota Bowl trips snapped last year with a surprising 27-8 loss at home to #8 seed Bismarck Century in the quarterfinal round. That bitter taste of defeat has likely lingered in the mouths of Sheyenne coaches and players all off-season. The Mustangs are routinely one of the best defensive teams in the state and that was reinforced last year with them holding opponents to a combined 141 points (43 pts fewer than next closest team). The question though, is how they re-tool after graduating 10 of their top 11 tacklers from the 2022 season. Senior CB Noah Olson returns to anchor the secondary that’ll have some fresh faces to the varsity scene. Sheyenne always seems to have great pass rushers and I think that trend continues with senior Grant Knodle and rising 2025 prospect Kade Pietrzak who enters his junior season holding D1 offers from UND and NDSU.

On offense, starting quarterback Caleb Duerr returns after a strong junior campaign in which he passed for 839 yards and 11 TD against five interceptions. He also scored nine times on the ground while rushing for nearly 600 yards. Duerr’s athleticism and decision-making is critical in the Mustangs veer option style offense. He’ll be joined in the backfield by some dangerous running backs in Race Wilson (639 rush yds, 4 TD; 21 rec, 222 yds, 2 TD) and Barry Kpeenu (331 rush yds, 2 TD). The Mustangs have been a model of consistency since making their debut as a varsity program in 2014 boasting a .750 winning percentage. That tradition mixed with the team’s returning talent has me confident in the potential of the 2023 Sheyenne Mustangs.  

3. Minot

No team raised more eyebrows in the big school division last season than Minot. That includes myself after not having them included in my top five nor my bubble teams last year. I’m not making that mistake again. The Magi won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year after finishing as WDA co-champ last season and recording more wins (6) than the previous two seasons combined (4). Head coach Chauncy Hendershot enters his fourth season with expectations continuing to rise and the mission now is to get over the hump after bowing out in the state quarterfinal round each of the past two seasons. In fact, Minot hasn’t won a playoff game since 2017 when they finished runner-up to West Fargo in the Dakota Bowl.

The seniors on the roster are hoping a postseason run will be the final chapter to their role in bringing the program from bottom dweller to a title contender once again. The offense returns a pair of top-end talents in senior wide receiver Logan Conklin (25 rec, 795 yds, 7 TD) and senior running back Tyson Ruzicka (848 rush yds, 8 TD). Conklin is a big play waiting to happen as evidenced by the fact that he scored on nearly 30 percent of his receptions. His production last year paired with the respect that he’s earned from opposing coaches from across the state helped me select him as the preseason player of the year in Class AAA. Meanwhile, Ruzicka checks in at 5’10” 180 lbs and has shown a knack for making tacklers miss with his great quickness. Those two weapons will help usher in a new man under center as seniors Lucas Beeter and Cash Danielson along with junior Kellan Burke vie for the starting quarterback position.

The Magi return a lot of key players on a defense that allowed just two touchdowns over the final three regular season games in 2022. Aside from Conklin (37 tkls, 3 INT) and Ruzicka (25 tkls, INT), players such as DJ Jones (9 TFL), Brady Larson (30 tkls, 4 sacks) and Michael George (33 tkls, 4 FF) are back to lead this experienced group. Coach Hendershot says that he’s hoping to take the program to another level in 2023, “We moved the dial and won some games last year. We are working to take the next step as a program. It is a great core group of athletes that work hard and are great teammates. The process has been steadily working, keep trusting, keep working and the score takes care of itself.”

4. Century

I don’t know what boggled my mind more last year, the fact that Patriots opened the season with five straight losses or that they rebounded and reached the state championship game? I still remember the words from head coach Ron Wingenbach on Varsity Sports Live following Century’s road semifinal win over Davies, “After that fifth loss we had a team meeting and had some players come up and say ‘we can do this yet, but we have to do a lot better in certain areas’ and ever since that particular day, we’ve gotten a lot better.” That turnaround season will be one I’ll never forget but a new year is upon us.

If the Patriots want to avoid a slow start this fall, they’ll need their offense to take some huge strides. Last year, Century averaged 16 points per game and failed to record more than two touchdowns in a game in each of the first five games of the regular season. Wingenbach says seniors Drew Nodland and Michael Twardoski will battle for the starting quarterback spot. Twardoski caught nine passes for 95 yards last season as a wide receiver. The offense returns a total of three starters highlighted by senior running back Gavin Lill who racked up 486 all-purpose yards and scored seven touchdowns last season. Lill will be at the top of the scouting report for opposing defenses. As for the Pats defense, they’ll need to get some fresh faces schooled up during fall camp. “Our development and depth in the defensive secondary will be critical for the success of the season”, says Wingenbach. One of the top returners for the defense is junior defensive lineman Ole Taylor who opened a lot of eyes last season recording a trio of sacks as a sophomore. We’ll broadcast the Patriots’ season opener against West Fargo on Midco Sports and streaming on Midco Sports Plus on Friday, August 25th!

5. Mandan

The 2022 season was a remarkable one for Mandan Braves fans as they watched their favorite squad win eight games, the most for the program since 2011. It was a super entertaining squad highlighted by an explosive offense that averaged nearly 36 points per game. Quarterback Max Carlson, running back Lincon Wiseman and receivers Karsyn Jablonski and Tahrye Frank all earned all-state honors. Now, head coach Todd Sheldon is tasked with finding the right pieces to keep this ship sailing after losing a strong class of 22 seniors. Junior Hudsen Sheldon is likely the next man up at quarterback after seeing a few varsity reps last season in relief of Carlson. Look for Rustin Medenwald and Paxton Ohlhauser to step into bigger roles on offense at the receiver position.

The Braves do return a pair of all-state players in senior FB/LB Wyatt Piehl and senior OL/DL Hunter Corbin. Corbin is the lone returning starter on the offensive line and will also be one of the leaders on defense along with Piehl and Medenwald who all started on that side of the ball a season ago. While I think it’s unfair to expect the Braves to put up the big-time numbers like they did last fall, I do view this as a squad that could once again contend for a top four spot and a home playoff game come October.


Bubble Teams


Last fall, the Eagles were a whisker away from making their first trip to the Dakota Bowl since 2014. That’s when 8th seeded Century came to town to crash the party with a 12-0 shutout win over the Eagles in the state semifinal round. The loss still stings but it’s clear that this program is being steered in the right direction. Head coach Wayne Werremeyer has led the Eagles to a 19-9 overall record since taking over in 2020. The big challenge facing Werremeyer before fall camp even starts is the fact that he’ll be without his expected starter at quarterback. First team all-state quarterback Mason Klabo (1,357 yds, 16 TD, 5 INT; 658 rush yds, 6 TD) who led the Eagles in both passing and rushing last fall as a sophomore will miss the entire season due to injury. Klabo helped the Eagles offense average 28 points per game with one of the more balanced attacks across the state. Senior Gage Brewer is expected to take over under center. Brewer quarterbacked the JV squad last season and showed how good of a dual threat quarterback he could be. After watching his HUDL highlights, I’d say he’s a punishing runner at the QB spot and knows how to put the right touch on his passes.

The Eagles return just three starters on both sides of the ball. RB/DB Luke Lorenz (519 rush yds, 4 TD), FB/LB Zach Lilly (103 rush yds, TD; 57 tkls, 14 TFL, 5 sacks), WR/LB Nick Hasbargen (9 rec, 205 yds, 2 TD) and RB/DB Grant Tschosik (53 tkls, 4 INT) are a quartet of seniors that’ll be relied on to make plays on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The offensive and defensive lines will look to senior OL/DL Andre Werk for leadership on and off the field. Werk battled through injuries last season but still managed to rack up six sacks to go with 23 tackles.

Coach Werremeyer is hoping to see some young players step up on the offensive and defensive lines acknowledging that they were very senior heavy last year in that area. I think the defense will be very good again for Davies and if the offense gels early on, another trip to the state semifinals would be within reach.

West Fargo

Moving the chains was an issue for the Packers in 2022 as the team struggled to a 4-6 finish and a first-round playoff exit at the hands of Mandan. Outside of wide receiver Payton McGregor (47 rec, 884 yds, 6 TD), the Packers struggled to find production. With McGregor out of the mix after graduation, opportunity knocks for several players that have been waiting in the wings. Payton’s younger brother Keyton, a senior WR/DB, will likely see his role increase after catching 13 passes for 231 yards and two scores a season ago. Senior Brady Medina is expected to be the new starting quarterback for Jay Gibson’s group. Medina showed glimpses of his talent last year while being sprinkled into the offense throughout the season. Senior TE/LB Tony Leal is another top prospect on the Packers. He’s garnered a lot of recruiting attention over the summer and should be more involved in the offense as both a pass catcher and run blocker. Depth is a concern for the Packers, but if they stay healthy, they’ll be a tough team to play against this fall.


For the first time in program history, Bismarck High is coming off a zero-win season. It was a tough fall for Demon fans, coaches and players who have become accustomed to “championship-level” football year after year. Mark Gibson, who has coached the Demons to over 200 victories and six state titles in his 23 seasons, understands that things need to change. Back in May, he told the Bismarck Tribune, “We’re going back to the grass roots a little bit. We have to be tougher. We’re going to find the 11 toughest kids we have and put them out there. We need more than 11 obviously, but it goes back to the mentality of accepting losing and that’s something we need to change.”

So why do I have them as a bubble team? I have a handful of reasons. A lot of coaches I’ve messaged and spoken with believe Bismarck is poised to make a big jump this season. I feel a lot of those opinions are based off respect for Gibson as a coach and seeing what the Demons have returning this fall. BHS returns several linemen, which is always a good place to start in varsity football. Big man Jack Shaffer will anchor that group. The 6’7” 320 lb offensive tackle just picked up an offer from NDSU as he enters his junior season. Senior QB Quin Hafner (1,429 pass yds, 10 TD, 4 INT) has a year of varsity experience under his belt and should take a step forward this season along with his top pass catcher senior WR/DB Preston Lemar (29 rec, 412 yds, 3 TD). Senior RB/LB Carter Henke returns as a leader on defense, and I expect him to be in the conversation for all-state at the end of the year.


Class AAA Preseason Player of the Year

Logan Conklin, Minot


10 Players to Watch in Class AAA

Tony Leal, West Fargo

Adam Leininger, Shanley

Zach Lilly, Davies

Noah Olson, Sheyenne

Sam Ovsak, Shanley

Wyatt Piehl, Mandan

Kade Pietrzak, Sheyenne

Tyson Ruzicka, Minot

Isiah St. Romain, Williston

Grant Tschosik, Davies

Filed Under Football | Power Rankings | Varsity Sports | ND High School