BIg Nine title race could shake out early

Who will be the class of the Big Nine Conference in 2010?

We're likely to figure that out early in the season, as the schedule includes a handful of games between contenders early on.

It's easy to pencil-in defending champion Mankato West, with their talented players at the skill positions. Big and physical Owatonna is another team that conference coaches figure will challenge for a championship.

Rochester Century, last season's Big Nine runner-up, and Rochester Mayo are also among the teams coaches think could be in the mix for a top spot in the Big Nine standings.

We'll know a lot more about all of those teams just two weeks into the season. The past two conference champions, Owatonna (2008) and Mankato West (2009) face off in Owatonna on Sept. 10. That same night, Century makes the short trip down the hill to face Mayo in the Big Nine Conference opener for both teams.


Faribault loses nine starters on defense, but the Falcons will be no pushover with all-conference running back Anthony Gustafson returning. Winona, Albert Lea and Mankato East also have higher expectations entering 2010.

MANKATO WEST(7-0 Big Nine, 11-1 overall) jumps right into the fray, facing Northfield in its season opener. It will mark the fifth time in just more than two seasons that the teams have met. West has won the past four meetings, including the 2008 Class AAAA state title game and last year's Class AAAA state quarterfinal matchup. West's magical ride -- and undefeated season -- ended with a 35-0 loss to eventual state champion Totino-Grace in the state semifinals. The good news for the Scarlets: Quarterback Phillip Nelson, a junior, returns after an impressive first season as starter. He led West to five consecutive scoring drives to open the state semifinal win, and threw for 298 yards in the state semifinal loss. Nelson's top target, senior receiver Nick Kaus, also returns. Kaus had 109 yards receiving in the state semifinal game. He had more than 600 receiving yards and 11 TDs last season. The Scarlets will need to replace workhorse running back Andy Pfeiffer, who was also a good pass-catcher out of the backfield. Defensively, linebacker Drew Weber might be the best defensive player in the conference.

ROCHESTER CENTURY(6-1, 7-2) will have a good idea of just how good it is early in the season. The Panthers' schedule is challenging right off the bat. They play host to Chaska in the season opener, then play games at rivals Rochester Mayo and Owatonna in two of the next three weeks. Owatonna knocked top-seeded Century out of the Section 1AAAAA playoffs last season, after the Panthers had topped the Huskies in the regular season. The Panthers seek to replace six senior All-Big Nine players, including RB Carson Fossum (16 TDs) and QB Jared Malone (more than 800 yards passing). The cupboard is not bare for Century, though. Several of the team's key contributors were juniors last season, including DB/WR Kyle Riggott and RBs Dominque Layfield and Chad Zastrow. Senior Nick Beise also saw some game action at quarterback last season. He'll be pushed by junior Nick Jacobs, who guided Century's B team to a 5-3 record last season.

FARIBAULT(5-2, 6-4) returns one of the top runners in the conference, senior Anthony Gustafson, but they'll need to find a way to replace defensive standout Bo Putrah, who is playing at Division II St. Cloud State this fall. Putrah, a defensive end, was the Big Nine Defensive Player of the Year last fall. Coach Ned Louis and the Falcons hope to build on a defense that allowed just 16.5 points per game last season in conference play, the second-best mark among Big Nine teams (behind only Mankato West's 13.5 average).

ROCHESTER MAYO(5-2, 5-4) returns an experienced group up front on both sides of the ball, but some new faces will occupy other positions. Key losses for the Spartans include quarterback Steve Miller, who passed for 1,374 yards last season (the second-best single season total in school history) and receiver Tom Foote, who ended his career with the most career catches in program history (62). Mayo coach Kevin Landherr is confident in junior QB Nate Penz, who took some varsity snaps last season. Running back Ethan Johnson, a third-year varsity player, is also back, as are four starting linemen.

OWATONNA(4-3, 6-4) is again expected to be big and physical up front, and the Huskies are again expected to be among the favorites to win the conference championship. They return two all-conference players on offense, including talented running back Colin Wencl and lineman Will VanDuzer. Wencl ran for four touchdowns in the Huskies' playoff victory at Rochester Century. He'll be joined in the backfield by 5-foot-7 junior Jesse Ebeling. Ebeling didn't see a great deal of varsity action last season, but he made the most of his one start. He ran for 233 yards and tied a school record with five TDs in the Huskies' win against John Marshall, when Wencl was out with an injury. Owatonna averaged the most points in the conference last season, 34.5 per game.

WINONA(3-4, 4-5) took a step backward in 2009, after coming up just minutes shy of a Section 1AAAA championship in a seven-win season in 2008. Still, the 2009 Winhawks produced the fourth-most points per game (24.1) in the conference, something they hope to build on and improve upon this season. Trigger man Jared Gilbertson is back to quarterback that WInhawks offense, and he has a favorite target returning as well, all-conference tight end Ryan Woodard. The Winhawks face a tough schedule, with consecutive games against Mayo, West and Owatonna in the first half of the season, and a regular season-closing game against Century.

AUSTIN(2-5, 4-6) returns just four of 22 starters from a season ago, and the Packers also have a new head coach. Tim Hermann resigned after last season, and longtime assistant Matt Schmit has taken over the program. Priority No. 1 for the Packers, who were 4-6 in 2009, will be finding a


new offensive threat to replace standout running back Jerrad Ryks, who averaged more than 25 carries and 100 yards per game last season. The Packers do not return any player who received significant touches on offense. Austin will go with two quarterbacks, Josh Hart and Blas Estrada. Hart is the better thrower, while Estrada is the better runner. Estrada also will play some running back, as will Andrew Heickley, who received a few carries last season as Ryks' backup. Schmit has installed an entirely new offense that focuses on misdirection and looks less like the spread for which Austin has been known. On defense, Austin has just three players back, including safety Cole Adams who came on strong at the end of last season.

ALBERT LEA(2-5, 2-7) showed improvement in the regular season, picking a pair of big victories for the program. The highlight of the Tigers season was a 26-21 upset victory against Rochester Century. Albert Lea also topped rival Austin in the regular season, before falling to Faribault in the first round of the Section 1AAAA playoffs. The 2010 Tigers will be led by three outstanding returners: OL/NG Bryce DeBoer, a 6-4, 320-pound junior; senior QB Kyle Kriewall; and 200-pound senior lineman Caleb Gaudian, an all-conference player in 2009. The Tigers have 13 total starters back, including seven on defense.

MANKATO EAST(1-6, 2-7) faces two big challenges this season: Replace all-conference running back Kenthen King, and improve a defense that allowed more than 32 points per game in 2009. The good news for the Cougars is that a lot of young players received extensive playing time last season. Eight of 11 defensive starter return, including three linebackers. Quarterback Matt Roberts, a junior, received some playing time last season in relief of veteran Jordan Benesh. Defensively, the Cougars can build around their three-man defensive front, which averaged 270 pounds last year.

ROCHESTER JOHN MARSHALL(0-7, 1-8) went winless in the conference, allowing 38 points per game, but the young players who were with the team a year ago have dedicated themselves to improving in all areas this season. "We had guys very hungry after what happened last year," junior quarterback Jake Kirsch said. "We want to show everyone that JM is a team that can't be taken lightly again." Kirsch will be a big reason why teams will have to take the Rockets seriously this season. The gritty signal-caller showed he could make plays with his arm and his feet. A.J. Johnson will open the season as the starting tailback, behind a line that is a year older and more mature, both physically and mentally.

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