Tom Kish led the Zimmerman High School football team to the inaugural Granite Ridge Conference title last fall.
But despite returning six starters on each side of the ball from a team that finished 9-2 overall in 2011, Kish knows the Thunder will face a much tougher road to repeating as conference champions in 2012.
That’s because the Granite Ridge opens its second season with a pair of new members in perennial football powers Albany and Becker.
The Huskies and Bulldogs — which boast a collective 31 state tournament trips and three state titles between them — join a league that still includes Kish and Zimmerman, St. Cloud Cathedral, Foley, Milaca, Little Falls, Mora and — for one more season — Princeton.
“(Adding Albany and Becker) really adds credibility to our league,” said Kish, whose team opens the regular season at Albany at 7 p.m. Friday. “It certainly changes the landscape. Those are two of the most storied football programs in the state we’re talking about. From a competitive standpoint, it really enhances an already-tough conference.”
It is Becker that is the team a number of Granite Ridge Conference coaches have pointed to as the preseason favorite in the league. The Bulldogs, which had been playing against state powers like Rogers and St. Michael-Albertville in the Mississippi 8 Conference, return six offensive and five defensive starters from a team that finished 6-4 a year ago.
That includes junior quarterback Tommy Benson — another grandson of St. John’s head coach John Gagliardi — who threw for 2,060 yards and 25 touchdowns last season and senior wide receiver Joel Hopkins — a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder — who caught 58 passes for 827 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2011.
Benson and Hopkins were both among the Becker players who earned the right to represent Minnesota at the NFL’s High School Player Development 7-on-7 tournament in Indianapolis this summer.
“Just like in the Mississippi 8, we’ll go into each season in this conference hoping to contend for a conference title every year,” said Bulldogs coach Dwight Lundeen, who has the chance to win the 300th game of his now-43 season coaching career when his team plays host to Milaca at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“But we know we’re going to prepare extremely well each week. There are a lot of tough teams in this league and we respect them all.”
Starting with Albany, which will play host to Becker on Sept. 28 in what could be a key matchup in the race for the conference title.
The Huskies are also coming off a 6-4 finish, but return several key players including senior quarterback/running back Scott Litchy, who rushed for 608 yards and six touchdowns last season.
“We have some familiarity with teams like Mora, Milaca, Cathedral and Foley because they were members with us in the West Central North,” Albany coach Mike Kleinschmidt said. “We’ve seen Zimmerman in the playoffs. But teams like Becker, Little Falls and Princeton will be new for us. We have a history with a few of those schools. But we haven’t played Becker since the Prep Bowl in 2005.”
Of course, the defending champions can’t be counted out either. Zimmerman returns four of five starters on the offensive line — two of whom (senior tackle Jeremy Sloneker and senior guard Mitch Robinson) were all-conference picks a year ago.
And senior running back Collin Ashley returns after piling up over 400 yards both rushing and receiving despite missing five games due to injury in 2011.
“I won’t say we’re the favorites, but we believe if we play our game, we’re capable of winning on any given night,” Kish said. “I don’t see us running the table or anything like that. I just think this conference is so competitive now that I wouldn’t be surprised if two or three teams shared the title with one or two losses each.”
Especially considering Cathedral is coming off a season in which it started 6-0 and contended for the conference crown. Head coach Dean Taylor and his team return five offensive and six defensive starters from that squad – including a pair of returning all-conference or honorable mention picks in senior running back/linebackers Bryan Bowar and Bo Schmitz.
Meanwhile, Foley has four starters back on each side of the ball from a team that won its first postseason game since 2008 last fall. That includes three-year starting senior linebacker Ben Greener and speedy senior wide receiver Tyler Beehler, who finished second in the state in the Class A 100 and 200 meter dash last spring.
“You’re introducing two teams (Becker and Albany) of high quality into what was a pretty good conference already,” Foley coach Larry Herm said. “That just heats the level of competition up even more. It was hot already. It’s probably at the boiling point now.”
Little Falls and Princeton (which returns to the Mississippi 8 after this season) are coming off 2-7 and 0-9 finishes respectively, but are each among the three biggest schools in the league. The Flyers and new head coach Jay DeCann also return a three-year starting quarterback in senior Spencer Fenske.
Milaca went 2-7 last fall, but advanced to the state tournament the year before. And Mora boasts a strong tradition and played Becker very tough — falling 27-26 — in a nonconference game a year ago.
“We welcome the competition,” said Taylor, who begins his fourth season at Cathedral and his 32nd season overall as a prep head coach. “You can’t be afraid to play good teams. If you are, you should just call up and forfeit beforehand. It’s like when I was at Sartell and we went from the Central Minnesota Conference to the West Central North. People asked me what we were going to do when we faced some of those bigger schools. I’d say we’re going to try and beat them.
“You have to welcome the challenge. If you don’t, why waste time playing the games at all.”