Section 1AAAAA: Owatonna has raised the bar
So, just how is Owatonna doing this?
The Huskies football program has had four trips to the state tournament the last six years, including twice winning it all and once finishing as runner-up.
Last year, they ended as champs, ringing up 59 points against Mahtomedi in the quarterfinals, 56 against Brainerd in the semis and then 63 against Elk River in the finals.
The common denominator in all of this winning has been coach Jeff Williams, a 1983 Rochester John Marshall graduate who’s been Owatonna’s head man the last 23 years.
Williams believes he’s got the recipe for success down now, all while knowing that without superior athletes and depth, there is no recipe that works.
"I don’t want to take any of this for granted," Williams said, "because it could end one day. But we keep getting good, hard-working kids. And then we’ve sprinkled in some real talent here and there."
Then there is that Owatonna football culture. It feeds on itself.
"When our kids come to practice, they know how to operate," Williams said. "A tone has been set. We work hard, but we have fun. We’re laughing all the time at practice; it’s a great time. But when the kids are going through a drill, it’s at full speed. Our kids have bought in and our older kids set the tone for the younger kids. It’s now passed on, generation to generation."
The current generation of Huskies is led by running back/safety deluxe Jason Williamson. Williamson, who committed to the University of Minnesota football program last school year, is a 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior who ran for more than 2,000 yards last year.
He’s one of three Huskies who return as starters on offense, and one of four on defense. Williamson is expected to guide Owatonna to another resoundingly winning season.
It’s one that Williams believes could have some hiccups in it early. But as players begin to more thoroughly understand their roles, he can imagine another deep playoff run.
"There is a lot to like about our team," Williams said. "We’re going to have some growing pains and maybe a rocky start. But we have some really nice cornerstones to build around. I hope we can make another run at the playoffs."
In addition to his own team, Williams sees great potential from another pair of Section One, Class AAAAA teams — Northfield and Century.
• OWATONNA •
Don’t expect the Huskies to be the Huskies of a year ago. There’s been way too much turnover in personnel for that to happen.
But is it fair to still expect a lot from Owatonna, the defending Class AAAAA state champion? Definitely.
The No. 1 reason for optimism is Jason Williamson, who head coach Jeff Williams freely refers to as the best player he’s had in his 23 years in Owatonna.
Williamson, who’s grown an inch (6-foot-2) and gained 20 pounds (210) from a year ago, rushed for 2,236 yards last season and caught 600 yards worth of passes. He also had six interceptions and as Williams puts it, "hits like a freight train."
Just one other starter is back on offense for Owatonna, guard Zach Wiese. Owatonna, which also doesn’t quite have the team speed it did last year, must replace prolific passer Abe Havelka at quarterback. It will do it with his brother, junior Soll Havelka. There are some huge shoes to fill there, as Abe threw for more than 40 touchdowns last season, easily an Owatonna record.
"Soll is a very heady player and probably the most unflappable kid I’ve ever met," Williams said.
Soll Havelka is part of what Williams calls a stacked junior class.
On defense, Owatonna returns four starters, including Williamson at free safety and linemen Chris Lewis (6-0, 275) and Joseph Stransky (6-2, 235).
• NORTHFIELD •
The Raiders are coming off an 8-1 season in which their only loss was to Century. That one was a stunner, with the Panthers prevailing 14-12 in the first round of the playoffs.
Northfield should be excellent again and should feature a more potent offense than it did a year ago, when the Raiders averaged 22 points per game. Their defense was stout all season, allowing just 11 ppg.
Northfield returns its leading rushers from 2017. They are 6-3, 180-pound senior Mitchell Stanchina and 5-9, 200-pound senior Jim Vitito. It also has four starters back on defense, including last year’s leading tackler, Luke Stanga.
Stanga is a 205-pound junior linebacker. Stanchina, an all-district player last season, is also back at defensive back.
"We are talented in the offensive backfield and should have solid team speed," Northfield coach Bubba Sullivan said. "We do have a couple of top players who we will need to build around on both sides of the ball."
Quarterbacking the Raiders will be senior Mason Zico. The 6-5, 175-pound senior played some last year and has a strong arm.
Northfield lost 23 players to graduation last year.
• AUSTIN •
There is every reason to believe the Packers’ recent resurgence will continue. A struggling program for years, Austin has gone 9-11 over the last two seasons, after going 0-9 the year before that.
The Packers had notable wins last year against Mayo (40-21), Mankato East (47-26) and John Marshall (47-12, first round of the playoffs). Austin followed the win over JM with a loss to eventual state champion Owatonna.
Coach Brett Vesel is expecting even better things from his team this season. He says it’s the best group he’s coached at Austin. "We return a strong core of returning starters from an excellent football team last season, and we will have the strongest and fastest team that we have had in the seven years that I’ve been here," he said.
Top returning players include Joe Seeman, Gavin Owens, Hunter Guyette and Elijah Marks.
Seeman rushed for 856 yards last year and had 88 tackles. Owens finished with 526 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns, Guyette had four interceptions and Marks was a standout defensive lineman.
The strength of the Packers is their lines. They return four players there on offense (Oliver Andersen, Isaac Clasen, Noah Kaercher and Alex Retterath). They also have four starters back there on defense (Nico Forte, Sam Johnson, Thomas Kroymann and Marks).
• CENTURY •
That was a wonderful final flourish by the Century football team last season.
After going just 3-5 in the regular season, the Panthers discovered themselves in the playoffs. They started with a 7-6 win over Mayo, then pulled off a stunner in downing previously unbeaten Northfield 14-12 in the semifinals.
That landed them in the finals, where they lost 37-0 to eventual state champion Owatonna.
Century would love to take the momentum built in those final weeks into this season.
"If we can stay healthy and can play together as a team, we can build off our strong finish to last season," Panthers coach Jon Vik said. "We have a core of kids who have made a strong commitment this past offseason. This work ethic should pay dividends."
Century will be leaning heavily on a pack of five players. They are all-conference fullback/linebacker Thomas Mergen, honorable mention all-conference lineman Brandon Wimbish (6-2, 300 pounds), running back/defensive back Colin Smith, linebacker Mark Leonard and wide receiver/defensive back Jack Fisher.
Century is hoping to make a considerable jump offensively from a year ago, when it averaged just 10 points per game. It allowed 24 ppg.
Century will need to do it behind a new QB, with Caden Floodstrom having graduated.
• MAYO •
It was a difficult start by Mayo and a solid ending — until, well, the very end.
That describes the Spartans’ 2017 season. Three straight losses to open the season were followed by four wins in five games, followed by a 7-6 upset loss to Century in the playoffs.
It makes this season tough to predict for Mayo. Their personnel also leads to a guessing game. Mayo has almost completely new offensive and defensive lines, where obviously football starts. But if some holes can be opened by those big boys up front on offense, Mayo will be good. That’s because the Spartans have a couple of excellent guys to hand the ball off to in seniors Israel Lozoya (5-9, 170) and Alex Lopez (5-7, 160).
Lozoya, a tough and strong guy with speed, is pound for pound one of the strongest players that Mayo coach Donny Holcomb has ever had. He ran for about 800 yards last year. "He’s gotten even faster," Holcomb said, "and he is so strong for his size."
At quarterback, Mayo is turning to a junior, Cade Sheehan. Also a wrestler, the 155-pound Sheehan is regarded as a great leader by Holcomb. Sheehan also possesses a good arm and a head for the game. But a learning curve is still expected for the first-year starter.
He’s got some quality people to throw to in Calvin Dixon, Lopez and senior Jack Murphy.
Defensively, the back end of Mayo’s defense should be best, led by Murphy, Dixon and junior Ethan Loehrer.
• JOHN MARSHALL •
There is good news and bad news with the Rockets.
The bad news first: JM football participation numbers are down significantly from a year ago, now with about 100 players out for the sport, grades 8-12. That’s compared to 120 a year ago.
However, the good news likely overrides it, at least for this season. JM has strong junior and senior classes. And better still is that out of those grades, JM coach Kevin Kirkeby had a core group of players work out harder in the offseason than he’s ever seen a group work.
Guys such as linemen Jacob Johnson and Sam Lingen, quarterback Aaron Limberg, running back/linebacker Braden Black and running back Abdul-Hakeem Mustapha have been in the weight room continuously since last season ended.
And that’s to name just a few.
"We opened the weight room in the spring, and before school started (6 a.m.) we had 15-20 kids in there all the time," Kirkeby said. "I really appreciate the sacrifices they’ve made. Guys are holding each other accountable. I really like the vibe that is going on."
JM players would love to quickly erase the memories of last season, when they struggled to get on track. JM finished with just one win, beating Red Wing. The Rockets were outscored by an average of 35-16.
Behind what should be improved offensive and defensive lines, a more settled and strapping Limberg (6-4, 190) at quarterback, a bulked up but still speedy Mustapha at halfback, and a now seasoned and bigger Braden Black at fullback and linebacker, JM has the chance to be dangerous.
Kirkeby has really liked what he’s seen from Limberg, who may be the key to this entire operation.
FRIDAY, AUG. 31
Owatonna at Faribault; Century at Mankato West; Winona at John Marshall; Austin at Mayo; New Prague at Red Wing.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 7
Owatonna at Mayo; Century at New Prague; John Marshall at Northfield; Red Wing at Austin.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 14
Austin at Owatonna; Red Wing at Century; Mankato West at John Marshall; Mayo at Mankato East;
FRIDAY, SEPT. 21
John Marshall at Owatonna; Mayo at Century; Faribault at Austin; Mankato East at Red Wing.
FRIDAY, SEPT 28
Owatonna at Mankato East; Century at Winona; John Marshall at Red Wing; Faribault at Mayo; Austin at Northfield;
FRIDAY, OCT. 5
Owatonna at Century; New Prague at John Marshall; Northfield at Mayo; Mankato West at Austin; Red Wing at Faribault.
FRIDAY, OCT. 12
Northfield at Owatonna; John Marshall at Century; John Marshall at Century; Mayo at New Prague; Austin at Mankato East; Winona at Red Wing.
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 17
New Prague at Owatonna; Century at Northfield; Mayo at John Marshall; Winona at Austin; Red Wing at Mankato West.