As the writer who covers the Class AA football beat for the Bismarck Tribune, I didn’t know what to expect from St. Mary’s heading into the 2013 season.
I knew the team was young — only a handful of seniors on the player roster. I knew it had some experience on the defensive side of the ball — nine returning starters, most of whom were underclassmen, though. I also knew there were lots of question marks, especially in the offensive backfield. I figured the Saints — 4-5 the previous season — would at least win six regular-season games and advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. A playoff victory? Quite possibly. A state championship? No. I expected that to go to either Minot Ryan, Fargo Shanley or Wahpeton.
But St. Mary’s was the team hoisting the trophy on the final day, winning the school’s first football state championship since 1994. The Saints defeated Wahpeton 24-22 in the Class AA state championship game on Nov. 15, capping an 11-1 season.
My expectations changed some as early as opening day, when the Saints defeated powerhouse Shanley, a school that had played in each of the last four state championship games, winning three. I actually picked Shanley to win that day, mainly because it had a number of key players back from its 2012 state championship team. And again, St. Mary’s had some question marks. But the defense dominated, leading St. Mary’s to a 14-9 victory. The offense — stocked with young players — would need some work, but it was clear the defense was going to be quick and rock solid.
Propelled by that defense and an improving offense, the Saints went on to win their next seven games, setting up a West Region championship game with No. 1-ranked Ryan. Ryan won a defensive struggle 14-7, but the Lions lost in the semifinals to Wahpeton. St. Mary’s, meanwhile, defeated Lisbon in the quarterfinals and Shanley in a rematch 12-10 to advance to the championship game for the first time since 1995. Coach Dan Smrekar got his fourth state title the following week.
It was an exciting and rewarding season for the Saints, and I’m expecting more of the same in 2014. St. Mary’s will return most of its starters, including quarterback Gus Smrekar (616 yards passing, 8 touchdowns) and running backs Jacob Heinert, Noah Krebs and Dillon Reiner. Heinert rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 18 touchdowns his sophomore season. Krebs rushed for 600-plus yards.
Five starting offensive linemen will return — Jackson Grad, Thomas Barry, Sam Harris, Austin Braunagel and Hunter Puetz (tight end).
The Saints will also bring back seven starters on defense — linemen Grad and Barry, linebackers Krebs, Jacob Schwab and Jacob Huber, and defensive backs Reiner and Byrne Curl. Schwab led the Saints in tackles with 150-plus. Grad had 90-plus stops; Krebs and Barry each had seven quarterback sacks, and Reiner had a team-high five interceptions.
The 2014 edition will be one of the more seasoned teams Smrekar has coached in some time.
St. Mary’s seven seniors include leading receiver Brian Obritsch (26 catches, 496 yards, 8 touchdowns), who also excelled in the secondary (2 interceptions); center Cole Schmitz; linebacker Darius Sparks, who led the Saints with nine quarterback sacks, and Matt Aberle, who had three interceptions, including one in the state championship game. Those players will be missed, but coach Smrekar and his staff are confident they’ll find the right replacements among the underclassmen.
Of course, Smrekar has been around long enough to know that there are no sure things. This team did well in staying focused and positive from day one. The underclassmen that I’ve spoken to want a repeat. They won’t be taking anything for granted.
Shiloh Christian was another football surprise.
I figured the Skyhawks would be a playoff team for the third season in a row, mainly because of the return of 1,000-yard running backs Blake Emmel and A.J. Dale, and the entire offensive line. However, Shiloh was still young across the board, with only three seniors and several new starters on both sides of the ball.
So what happened? Not only did the Skyhawks have the best season in school history, they were among the top teams in 9-man football.
Shiloh had an unblemished regular-season record (8-0) for the first time, won its first Region 4 title, and advanced to the semifinals, where it lost to Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn 32-31. The two playoffs wins were the first in the school’s football history.
I expect the Skyhawks to make a serious run at the Dakota Bowl next season. Returning starters will include Emmel and Dale; quarterback Zac Martin, who threw for 16 touchdowns this season, and four of the five starting offensive linemen. Shiloh also will return six starters on defense, including leading tacklers Emmel, Dale, Matt Fettig, Seth Losos and Chad Coulter, as well as the team leader in interceptions, Martin.
Coach Funnon Barker has brought the Shiloh program a long way in four seasons. Shiloh was 2-6 in Barker’s first season, but is 23-8 since. Shiloh didn’t have a winning season before 2011.
With Bismarck High, Century, St. Mary’s and Shiloh, it certainly looks like us high school football fans have a great deal to look forward to in 2014.
(Michael Weber is a Tribune sportswriter)