(Cover Photo: Travis Ellison/SportsEngine)
2017 Record: 11-2, lost in Prep Bowl
Returning Starters: 13 (5 O, 8 D)
It’s difficult to find a weakness on Dave Nelson’s 17th team at Minnetonka. The Skippers return one of the top quarterbacks in the state in Aaron Syverson, along with eight of 11 starters from their defense last season, including the entire secondary.
Syverson had a breakout campaign in his first season as a starter, throwing for more than 2,000 yards while completing almost 64 percent of his passes. Two receiving threats – Mitch Klass and Jackson Owens – return for their senior season, while running back Tamar Hopkins should give them more explosiveness at running back after returning from injury.
Offensive line depth is a concern, but Samaje Finch-Garrett will move to tackle from the defensive line to join Michael Galgano with protecting Syverson on the edge.
2. Eden Prairie
2017 Record: 13-0, won Prep Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 (3 O, 3 D)
The Eagles will have a great chance to defend their title in 2018, but there could be some early-season growing pains due to inexperience.
Three-year starting quarterback Cole Kramer could mask a lot of the mistakes, though. The University of Minnesota commit will likely be asked to make a few more plays through the air without Solo Falaniko and Antonio Montero carrying the load out of the backfield.
Quentin Matsui and Caden Fey will be the defensive leaders for Eden Prairie, which lost also all of its starters on that side of the ball to graduation. Linebacker Rhys McCarthy-Kern, a transfer from DeLaSalle in 2017, should bolster the Eagles’ traditionally-stout front seven.
3. Prior Lake
2017 Record: 7-4, lost in State Quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 13 (7 O, 6 D)
A baker’s dozen returnees and a coaching staff change have Prior Lake with high expectations this fall. Matt Gegenheimer’s squad will again be paced by a physical defense after allowing less than six points per game in the Lakers final six contests of 2017.
Three senior linebackers will anchor the resistance. Spencer Shaver (54 tackles, four sacks), Noah Benson (58 tackles, three FR) and Michael Herbst (48 tackles, two INT) form one of the toughest groups in the metro area.
The Lakers were held to single-digit point totals in five of their games last season, including twice against Minnetonka. The offensive inconsistency was address by hiring former Mankato West headman Mark Esch. Esch went 107-22 in 11 seasons with the Scarlets, often fielding some of the most-potent offenses in Class AAAAA. Can the Esch and the Lakers’ new attack complement its defense all the way to U.S. Bank Stadium?
4. Lakeville North
2017 Record: 7-4, lost in State Quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 12 (7 O, 5 D)
The Panthers are the only team other than Eden Prairie to advance to the Class AAAAAA state quarterfinals every year since 2012. Unlike the Eagles, Lakeville North has qualified for only one Prep Bowl during that time.
That could change this year behind the best combination of offensive and defensive lines in Minnesota. Bryce Benhart, NFN’s No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2019, leads the o-line, while twin brothers Eli and Will Mostaert are the anchors of the defensive front. Both Mostaerts have committed to play at North Dakota State.
The key to North’s success will be its offensive production, which has been the case in past years. Leading-rusher Brian Curtis Jr. and the dynamic Raja Nelson both return for the Panthers offense, which ended last season with three 40-plus point totals in the final four contests.
5. Cretin-Derham Hall
2017 Record: 8-3, lost in State Semifinals
Returning Starters: 11 (6 O, 5 D)
The Raiders hit their stride at the midpoint of the 2017 campaign and put together a six-game winning streak before losing to Minnetonka in the state semifinals. A strong core from last year’s team returns, which should make it another successful year in St. Paul.
Quarterback Danny Callahan and receiver Peter Udoibok will make it tough on defenses again this fall. The duo connected on 52 passes for 640 yards and four touchdowns as juniors, and their presence should help open up the rushing game in Brooks Bollinger’s offense.
Defensively, the linebackers will be the strongest unit. Abe Schwinn is entering his third year as a starter, while Luke Brower and Matteo Marchio both emerged as reliable tacklers at the end of last season. New faces around the secondary and defensive line, however, will have to surface for CDH to repeat their run to U.S Bank Stadium.