Posted On: 08/24/18 8:15 PM

(Cover Photo: Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch)

1. Pierz
2017 Record: 13-0, won Prep Bowl
Returning Starters: 10 (4 O, 6 D)

The Pioneers have lost three total games by a combined 22 points since the beginning of the 2014 season. Two of the losses came in the state semifinals, a round they’ve qualified for each of the past four seasons. They’ve been the most consistent program at this level lately, which is why Leo Pohlkamp’s squad gets the nod over a couple other Class AAA powers to begin 2018.

Senior Reese Kapsner leads Pierz on both sides of the ball. Kapsner rushed for more than 1,100 yards last fall, while also finishing second on the team in tackles on defense. Another linebacker, Luke Girtz, is also back after receiving All-Mid State District honors while leading the team in tackles. Senior Carson Huls and junior Zach Traut will hold down half of the Pioneers’ defensive front.

2. Rochester Lourdes
2017 Record: 9-3, lost in State Quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 18 (9 O, 9 D)

If Rochester Lourdes’ recent history holds true to form, then the Eagles will be playing for a state title at U.S. Bank Stadium again in late November. The Purple-and-Gold have qualified for the Prep Bowl in every even-numbered year since 2010, winning championships on three occasions (’10, ’14, ’16).

Pat Leary and Jake Groteber are the heart-and-soul of this Lourdes team. Both players were a part of the Eagles 2014 title, and they should play an even larger role as seniors. Leary is the best skill player on the roster, excelling at receiver and cornerback. Groteber is a 225-pound bruiser at fullback and middle linebacker. Both players are solid college football prospects.

The amount of returning starters (18) makes it tempting to list Lourdes as the favorite over defending champ Pierz. Hopefully they’ll get to battle it out on turf late this fall.

3. New London-Spicer
017 Record: 7-4, lost in Section Final
Returning Starters: 15 (8 O, 7 D)

This edition of New London-Spicer has coach Dan Essler as excited as he’s been since the program’s state runner-up finish. The Wildcats return a plethora of starters on both sides of the ball, but it’s the offense that will strike fear into opponents in 2018.

Quarterback Brandon Adelman is back after directing the Wildcats to 33 points per game last season in his second season as starter. He was named the East Central District Most Valuable Quarterback after throwing for 1,665 yards and 21 touchdowns. His top receiver Kelly Bennetts returns too after an 835-yard, 10-touchdown campaign that earn him the receiver of the year in the East Central.

For the Wildcats to overtake Pierz, their defense must improve on 2017. They allowed more than 28 points in all their losses, including a 40-14 season-ending setback to the Pioneers. Seven players are back on that side of the ball, including All-District defensive end Brandon Harlow.

4. St. Croix Lutheran
2017 Record: 12-1, lost in Prep Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 (3 O, 3 D)

The loss of 22 seniors will be hard for the Crusaders to overcome, even with legendary coach Carl Lemke still patrolling the sidelines.

Quarterback Jon Liesener is one of the few mainstays on St. Croix Lutheran’s offense. Liesener had a great junior season running the veer option attack last year, but without multiple weapons this season, he’ll be relied upon even more.

A pair of two-way linemen return for SCL too. Senior Elijah Davis will anchor the groups on both offense and defense, while junior Luke Liska is a quick, undersized type of lineman that seems to flourish every year for the Crusaders.  Can Lemke and his staff find enough playmakers to replace the voids of Garett Maag, Stephen Kletscher and Mike Stern?

5. Perham
2017 Record: 7-3, lost in Section Final
Returning Starters: 11 (6 O, 5 D)

Perham’s mix of veteran linemen, skill players and playmakers have the Yellowjackets poised for their first State Tournament since 2012.

The offense will begin and end with the play of Jenson Beachy. Beachy has twice been named the Midwest District Quarterback of the Year, gaining more than 1,500 yards of total offense as a sophomore followed by more than 2,700 yards a season ago. He will again have Ty Moser on the receiving end of his passes, which should be a popular combination on Friday nights.

Moser will also start at defensive end for the ‘Jackets D. He’ll join linemen Colton Kostynick and Dawson Stephens to form a strong group in the trenches, but zero returning starters in the secondary will need to be addressed early in the season.