On this special edition of After the Whistle, Phil Benotti and Luke Gamble preview the North Dakota Football season; all leading up to the first games this Friday on Aug. 20.
There are two regions that make up Class 11AA football this year, with six teams in the west representing the WDA at the highest level. Five of those six teams will make the playoffs.
The six teams in the west are:
- Century High School
- Legacy High School
- Bismarck High School
- Mandan High School
- Minot High School
- Williston High School
Only four teams make up the east region, with three of the four making the postseason.
The four teams in the east are:
- West Fargo Sheyenne High School
- West Fargo High School
- Fargo Davies High School
- Fargo Shanley High School
You have to start with the glaring fact that they haven’t lost in over two years, dominating at this top division, but they lost a lot of talent due to graduation in 2020; their quarterback, leading rusher, and most of their offensive line. One player that does return is Lucas Schweigert, a big player up front on both sides of the ball for Century. Look for him to make a bit impact this season.
Head coach Ron Wingenbach has been preaching one thing to his team, he wants them to be physical. Outworking their opponents, and if they can do that, it doesn’t matter how many starters they have to replace, they will be back in Fargo playing for a title.
“A lot of things aren’t going to change from last year,” says Wingenbach. “It comes down to blocking and tackling. And I think the one thing this year that this team recognizes is that the schedule itself is going to lend itself to a little more physicality in all nine games and we better be ready for that.”
“We just control what we can control,” says Lucas Schweigert. “Focus on our main Century pillars, just being physical up front and just trying to win what we can win. And every year we just try to build the best we can with the group we got, and there are things we have to change, fluctuate each year and we’ll just try and figure it out as this season goes along and what works best for this group.”
Moving over to the Bismarck Demons, a team coming off of a semifinal loss last year to West Fargo Sheyenne, so close to making it back to the Dakota Bowl, hoping to make it back for the first time since they won a title in 2018.
Bismarck enters this year down in numbers as far as their roster is concerned, so depth will be the first issue on head coach Mark Gibson’s mind. But what they lack in depth, they have in talent when it comes to the starters. They are one of the only teams in the west returning a starting quarterback this season, and you have to talk about the wrecking ball coming from the backfield in Isaiah Huus.
The leading rusher in the WDA last year, over 1200 yards, 21 touchdowns, by far the leading scorer in the conference. He went down late in the year with an injury, but he says he feels great health-wise, and the Demons will need him if they want to contend this year. More than that though, Bismarck will lean on two-way players to avoid issues down the road.
“To be honest with you, I think Bismarck High was one of the first teams to take the two-platoon attitude,” says Gibson. “And I think there’s a lot more schools doing that, that are benefiting from it and something we’ve always tried to do is to get as many starters on the field as we can. And we’re still trying to keep that attitude. And even though numbers-wise, we’re kind of in a crunch and so we’re going to do the best we possibly can.”
“I’m confident,” says Isaiah Huus. “We went to our team camp and everyone looked good, conditioned well and I mean, we have some big young guys coming up, so I’m excited. I think they are just big powerhouses. I think they can make some holes and make some things happen. Give good protection for Fisch and me and anyone getting the ball.”
Let’s move now to the Mandan Braves, one team that has been consistent over the last couple of seasons. The last two years, they’ve been eliminated in the Bismarck Community Bowl by the eventual state champs in Century High. If they want to avoid a third year with the same result, they will have to do it with a young roster.
Only eight seniors on this team, one of the smallest senior classes that head coach Todd Sheldon has had in a while, but he does return a few key pieces like Tight End and Defensive lineman Aaron Grubb. On the offensive side. Coach Sheldon knows there will be growing pains this season, but hopes to maintain that balanced attack that Mandan has been known for.
“We lose three senior running backs from last year’s team,” says Sheldon. “But we also have five new offensive linemen from last year’s team. So our run game is going to be a little bit inexperienced and we might lean on that passing game to start with, but we’re really going to shoot for that 60/40 as we go through the season. We’ll try to be a little bit more dynamic as the season goes. We want to see explosive plays. We have athletes that can make explosive plays so we’re looking forward to seeing what they do on Friday Nights.”
The Legacy Sabers will look to replace some pieces on offense, Nick Kupfer most notably as he is now catching passes for the Fighting Hawks. Draken Stugelmeyer will be their piece out of the backfield that they will lean on, but they also return size on the line, which can help stabilize an offense that will look to figure things out in the passing game.
Moving to Minot, a team that missed the postseason last year. Second-year head coach Chauncy Hendershot will lean on players like running back Hunter Ruzicka and returning quarterback Trevor Emke. With the new playoff format, they have a good chance to make the postseason, so more than likely, their season will come down to a road game at Williston for that final spot in the west.
Speaking of Williston, the Coyotes hope to come in and surprise some people. Head coach Andrew Mock will continue to lean on the run game with this team. Tyler Tamez and Sawyer Hanson will be the one-two punch this season, a duo that could lead them to a postseason appearance.