The state high school football playoffs start on Tuesday night, with all of the nine-man classes and Class 11B contesting first-round matchups. Here’s a look at favorites, players to watch and other storylines for each class.
The favorites: There once existed a time, strangely enough, when Winner (8-0) lost football games. That year was 2014, and the Warriors’ season ended with a shutout loss to Bon Homme in the first round of the state playoffs. Winner has not just gone undefeated since then — the Warriors haven’t scored fewer than 39 points or allowed more than 16. In 2016, head coach Dan Aaker’s squad has scored 426 points and allowed 22. Seven of their nine wins have been shutouts. The Warriors might be the most clear-cut title favorite in state history.
Winner’s main competitor appears to be Groton Area (7-1), whom the Warriors would face in the state finals if the playoffs go chalk the whole way. The Tigers finished the regular season with the second-most seed points in Class 11B, with their main statements — wins over Aberdeen Roncalli and Milbank Area, a playoff team in Class 11A — coming in weeks four and five. The Tigers’ only loss came in the final week of the season to Parkston, whom, appropriately enough, Winner faces in the first round of the playoffs. Hey, nobody said the playoffs are perfect.
Players to watch: It’s been difficult to evaluate Winner this season, largely due to the fact that many of the Warriors’ blowout wins have ended at halftime or in the third quarter, but they do have some obvious studs. Krockett Krolikowski, a South Dakota State commit, has been a bulldozer on the offensive and defensive lines, and Cameron Kuil, a state track champion in the 400 meters, has averaged 16 yards per carry at running back. Cole Gassman of Bridgewater/Emery-Ethan has also been one of the state’s top rushers this year, regularly racking up 100-yard-plus performance for a team in just its second year as an 11-man program. All three of the Seahawks’ losses came against Class 11A opponents, and they fell to Tea Area, the top seed in that class, by just six points.
Heavy favorites with heavy hearts: Winner’s regular season came to a close with a 64-0 win over Jones County/White River, but that was also one of the most difficult gamedays the Warriors have experienced. It came the day after junior Taylor Watzel, who played linebacker and offensive lineman for the Warriors, died in a farming accident. “It felt good, I think, for everybody to get out and just have some sense of normalcy and clear our minds and just play,” Winner coach Dan Aaker told The Daily Republic of Mitchell after the game. The loss of Watzel will certainly be on the Warriors’ minds as the look to repeat last year’s state championship.
The favorites: A mid-season shootout flipped the paradigm of this class, with the defending state champion, who had barged through each of its early-season matchups, falling to another one of the state’s recent powers. Wolsey-Wessington lost that game 40-36 to Gregory, and those appear to be the two schools in the best position for a state title. The Warbirds won their first four games by a combined 210-6 margin before the loss to the Gorillas, where Gregory quarterback Andy McCance picked their pass defense apart. Wolsey-Wessington has been just fine since then, however, scoring over 50 points three times and smacking a solid Bon Homme team 52-15.
Wolsey-Wessington is the defending champion, but Gregory also has a state title in its recent past, having beaten Woonsocket/Wessington Springs/Sanborn Central in 2014. The Gorillas don’t have the insane overall margin of victory that the Warbirds do, but they played a better record, with more than half of the teams they faced finishing with a .500 or better winning percentage. Gregory is a relative rarity in the nine-man ranks, as they’re able to carve up teams with their passing attack, like they did in the win over Wolsey-Wessington. That unit is led by the 5-foot-11 McCance, a junior.
Players to watch: Baltic finished the regular season undefeated at 8-0, accomplishing that feat for the first time since 1971. Unlike that year, the Bulldogs will have an opportunity to win a legitimate state championship. (Such a title didn’t exist until 1981.) Senior running back Kadin Wolff has rushed for 1,548 yards on 144 carries for the Bulldogs, an average of more than 10 yards per carry, and scored 18 touchdowns. Wolsey-Wessington has its own dominant rusher in senior Darian Ogunjemilusi, who has routinely rolled up 200-plus-yard games this year.
No shortage of winners: As a whole, this class appears to be significantly up this year. There are three 8-0 teams — Gregory, Webster Area and Baltic — and five at 7-1 — Wolsey-Wessington, Mt. Vernon/Plankinton, Chester Area, Canistota and Britton-Hecla. Unlike the state’s 11-man classes, there’s a significantly wide field of title contenders.
The favorites: A season-ending matchup might have cast some crucial clarity on the playoff picture in this class. Sully Buttes and Potter County, both 7-0 entering the matchup, met on Oct. 20, and Potter County came away with a 50-14 thrashing. The Chargers still appear to be a threat for the title, led by running back Brady Hill, but the thumping seems to further open the field up for 8-0 Warner. The Monarchs have mostly played teams with winning percentages of .500 or worse, but they did give Langford Area, last year’s Class 9B champion, its only loss in 2016.
Players to watch: Philip running back Dalton Kinsley had some of the most eye-popping numbers in the state early in the season, racking up 1,604 yards in his first five games, with a 332-yard, five-touchdown game against New Underwood and a 303-yard, six-touchdown game against Lyman. He isn’t immune to off nights, like when he managed just 30 yards on 12 carries in a 20-12 loss to Wall, but the potential Kinsley has shown is tantalizing. Parker running back Zam Centeno has also put up some serious totals, like his 264-yard, three-touchdown performance in week four against Alcester-Hudson.
Ripe for a new name: Only one state title winner in this class from the last five years still plays in 9A. Canistota has dominated recently, winning in 2011, 2012 and 2015, but the Tigers bumped up to 9AA this season and have done quite well, making the playoffs with a 7-1 record. The opposite happened with 2014 champion Howard, who went down to 9B a year after winning a championship and struggled with low participation this year. Potter County has a chance to retake the title in won in 2013, but if the Battlers don’t do that, an unfamiliar name could emerge.
The favorites: The championship in Class 9B last year came down to Langford Area and Harding County, and there’s a decent chance that could happen again in 2016, as both of those teams are No. 1 seeds. Corsica-Stickney, whom Langford Area topped in the state semifinals last year, could be an interloper. The Jaguars rose to first place in the state’s sportswriters poll in the middle of the season and have stuck there since. Another potential contender: Colome (7-1), who lost to Corsica-Stickney 16-14 in the season opener, by far the closest of the Jaguars’ eight wins this year.
Player to watch: One of the more interesting preseason storylines came from one of Class 9B’s brightest stars. Langford Area running back Lincoln Gibbs really made his name in the state championship game last year, when he racked up 350 rushing yards, which set a state record. Gibbs committed to North Dakota State over the offseason, but he yanked that commitment just before the 2016 season started and committed to Bob Nielson’s staff at South Dakota instead. He’s been injured this season, limiting his productivity, but he can be one of the most exciting playmakers in the state.
The show goes on: Howard, the 2014 champion in Class 9A, has experienced significantly different fortunes since that win. This season, they have just 15 players and have at times been at less than that due to injuries. The Daily Republic detailed the issue earlier this fall, where head coach Pat Ruml did express confidence that numbers would be up in the near future. Despite all that, however, Howard has a playoff matchup ahead of it — and as a No. 2 seed, no less — against Alcester-Hudson.