The Becker Bulldogs made their debut in the Granite Ridge Conference a memorable one in 2012.
Arriving in the league as it began its second season of existence, Becker finished Granite Ridge play unbeaten and captured the conference title en route to a 10-2 overall record and a berth in the Class 4A state semifinals.
As the conference begins Year 3, the Bulldogs are aiming for a repeat performance.
“We set the bar high here,” said Becker senior Zach Zimmer, who is expected to take over as the team’s starting quarterback. “We want the road to the conference title to come through Becker every year.”
Many around the league again point to the Bulldogs as the preseason favorite, even as they replace Zimmer’s predecessor — Tommy Benson — who threw for 2,348 yards and 30 touchdowns a year ago.
They also have to replace the 2012 Times’ All-Area player of the year in wide receiver Brett Watercott.
But veteran head coach Dwight Lundeen and his team do return four offensive starters, including senior fullback Austin Soare, who rushed for 956 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
They also bring back six starters on defense, four of whom were All-Granite Ridge Conference second-team picks as juniors.
“I think you have to look at Becker as the favorite,” said Albany coach Mike Kleinschmidt, whose team joined the league last fall.
“They have the belt and it’s theirs until somebody takes it from them. They have a great tradition over there and they always have a ton of talent in that program.”
But Becker’s road to another conference title will certainly have its share of obstacles.
The league loses charter member Princeton, which rejoins the reformatted Mississippi 10 Conference after also advancing to the Class 4A state semifinals a year ago.
But plenty of challengers remain.
You can start with Foley — a team that boasts a backfield featuring not only senior running back Luke Kelvington, who rushed for 1,157 yards and nine touchdowns in his team’s 7-3 finish last season, but classmate Tyler Beehler, the defending Class A state champion in both the 100 and 200-meter dash.
“Foley has some kids who can really move,” Milaca coach Randy Johnson said.
“They’ve got speed over there that just doesn’t stop.”
Then there is Zimmerman, a perennially strong program that returns four starters on offense and five on defense.
Senior running back/defensive back Noah Lunning and senior guard Eli Mullenbach were both all-conference honorable mention picks a year ago. And senior center Dustin Neseth has drawn Division II looks.
But the Thunder will be inexperienced at some positions, including quarterback where sophomore Taylor Snow is expected to assume the starting role.
“I won’t call it a rebuilding year, but we’re going to be pretty young in a lot of places,” Zimmerman coach Tom Kish said. “I think we’re a team that’s going to get better as the year goes along.”
Albany, which moves up to Class 4A this season, is also a team in transition. The Huskies, who finished 5-5 last year, will again be smaller up front.
Junior Zac Tomsche takes over for Scott Litchy, who rushed for 936 yards and 16 touchdowns last fall, at quarterback. Seniors Carter Holthaus and Nick Mergen will fill out the backfield.
“But Albany is a team that’s always given us problems,” Foley coach Larry Herm said. “They’re always tough, year in and year out.”
Little Falls returns senior Jalen Wuchko, who rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago. And many conference coaches feel the Flyers may be primed to improve on last season’s 3-6 finish.
Mora returns seven starters on offense, including second-year starting quarterback Justin Mantel, a junior, and senior tailback Greg Chmiel, who rushed for just shy of 1,000 yards in 2012.
The Mustangs also return seven starters on the defensive side of the ball.
“We were a team with a lot of new starters last year and it took us a few weeks to really get going,” said Mora coach Bryan Cook of his team’s 3-7 finish.
“Teams like Albany, Zimmerman and Becker can really expose your inexperience in a hurry. But we learned from that.”
St. Cloud Cathedral has a new head coach in Andy Auger. And the Crusaders return senior starting quarterback Jeff Fasching, who threw for 1,716 yards and 22 touchdowns last season.
They boast athleticism at the other offensive skill positions as well.
Milaca is a more veteran unit than the team that finished 0-9 a year ago. Senior Brandon Kiel is back for his second season as the team’s starting quarterback and also returns at free safety where he had 36 solo tackles and 30 assists last fall.
“I wouldn’t be satisfied if we finished .500 this season,” Fasching said. “We have a team that’s talented enough to win a lot of games. But there’s always the chance we won’t win any.
“This league is that tough. It comes down to executing every week and having the depth to compete. Which means we have to stay healthy.”
That’s true all over the conference — even in Becker.
“We have the talent to be an all-around great football team,” Zimmer said.
“But it’s going to come down to everybody doing their jobs every week.”
2013 Granite Ridge schedule
(all games at 7 p.m. unless noted)
* Thursday, Aug. 29 — Becker at Hutchinson; Milaca at Pierz; Holdingford at St. Cloud Cathedral (at SCSU); Mora at Redwood Valley.
Friday, Aug. 30 — Zimmerman at Fridley; Waseca at Little Falls; Benilde-St. Margaret’s at Albany; Foley at Jackson County Central.
Friday, Sept. 6 — Milaca at Foley; St. Cloud Cathedral at Mora; Becker at Zimmerman; Little Falls at Albany.
Friday, Sept. 13 — Foley at Becker; Little Falls at Milaca; Mora at Zimmerman; Albany at St. Cloud Cathedral, 8 p.m. (at St. John’s).
Friday, Sept. 20 — Albany at Milaca; Zimmerman at Foley; Mora at Becker; St. Cloud Cathedral at Little Falls.
Friday, Sept. 27 — Zimmerman at Little Falls; Becker at Albany; Foley at St. Cloud Cathedral (at SCSU); Milaca at Mora.
Friday, Oct. 4 — Little Falls at Foley; Albany at Mora; Milaca at Becker; St. Cloud Cathedral at Zimmerman.
Friday, Oct. 11 — Mora at Little Falls; Foley at Albany; Becker at St. Cloud Cathedral (at SCSU); Zimmerman at Milaca.
Wednesday, Oct. 16 — St. Cloud Cathedral at Milaca; Little Falls at Becker; Albany at Zimmerman; Mora at Foley.
2012 Granite Ridge Standings