BLUE EARTH - Most high school football coaches would agree the first step in achieving a successful season is winning one's conference championship.
Blue Earth Area mentor Randy Kuechenmeister and his Buc gridders not only achieved that feat by capturing the outright South Central Conference crown last fall, but took two more giant steps to improve upon the above theory.
Kuechenmeister's hard-hitting crew ran the gamut by winning the Section 3 title and the Class AAA state championship en route to a perfect 13-0 season.
RETURNING STARTERS — Blue Earth Area quarterback Kysten Zierke (with football) delivers a stiff-arm to Fairmont safety Jay Ruen (13) during Section 3AAA semifinal action at Wilson Field in Blue Earth last fall. Zierke and offensive lineman Kellen Jacobs (55) return this fall to the defending Class AAA state champion Bucs’ gridiron, while Ruen returns for his third consecutive varsity campaign on Mahoney Field in Fairmont. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
After earning the school's first-ever state football crown, most Minnesota media outlets have chosen Blue Earth Area as the preseason favorite to capture the SCC title in 2013.
"No one expected us to win the whole thing last year, but all of the pieces just fit into place," said Kuechenmeister, who returns to the Bucs' sideline for his 23rd season.
"Everybody's (preseason) picks are based on how the teams did the year before," Kuechenmeister said in reference to his maroon-and-gold gridders being tabbed as this fall's conference favorite by his prep peers. "It (the team's success) still depends on how your players gel on the field, and how you match up with your opponents on a given night.
"Like most years, I think the conference will be very competitive and it's wide open."
Despite Kuechenmeister's modest outlook, seventh-year Fairmont head coach Mat Mahoney and fourth-year St. Peter mentor Brian Odland agree that Blue Earth Area should be considered the preseason favorite in the SCC.
"Until somebody beats them, Blue Earth (Area) is still the defending AAA state champion and South Central (Conference) champ," said Mahoney, whose program's incredible 21-game league winning streak and four-year grasp on the SCC trophy ended at the hands of Odland's Saints and Kuechenmeister's Bucs, respectively, last fall.
"They (the Bucs) return a very talented nucleus of players from last year's state championship team, so I'd have to give them the nod to win the conference this year," said Odland, whose program continued its gradual ascent in the SCC standings over the last three seasons. St. Peter edged Fairmont, 28-20, during Week 5 last year to claim the No. 2 spot via a 4-1 record against league rivals.
While both Mahoney's Cardinals and Waseca head coach Brad Wendland's Bluejays will look to bounce back from injuries to key personnel a year ago, Anthony Ortmann and Jeff Whitney will seek early victories when each kick off their second seasons at the helms of New Ulm and St. James, respectively, with Week Zero games.
Ortmann and the Eagles hit the road to Luverne for a 7 p.m. nonconference season-opener Friday, Aug. 23, while Whitney and the Saints play host to non-league rival Pipestone Area in St. James.
Here's a preseason glance at the SCC football teams in order of how they finished in 2012.
Blue Earth Area (5-0 SCC, 13-0 overall): Perfection.
Kuechenmeister lost Minnesota Associated Press all-state honorable mention selection and 2012 Sentinel All-Area co-player of the year Carter Hanson to graduation, but does return the other half of the Bucs' award-winning dynamic duo in Kysten Zierke.
Zierke, last season's All-Area co-captain and AP all-state choice, spearheads a talent-laden roster featuring five returning starters on each side of the line of scrimmage this fall.
Zierke, a 6-foot, 205-pound bulldozing quarterback, redefined the term 'triple threat' after clearing the 1,000-yard plateau in both rushing and passing, in addition to delivering hole-opening blocks.
Zierke also recorded 53 tackles, including two and a half quarterback sacks, and garnered two interceptions from his linebacker spot on defense.
Zierke, however, will not be alone in his quest for a second straight SCC crown as All-Area and all-SCC choices David Franta and Gus Phillips also return to double duty for Blue Earth Area during their senior seasons.
Franta utilized his combination of speed and power to generate 714 yards and 11 touchdowns from his slotback position, while chalking up 75 tackles, pocketing two interceptions and recovering one fumble at strong safety a year ago.
The lightning-quick Phillips amassed an incredible 10 sacks en route to 51 tackles, three fumble recoveries and one interception from his defensive end spot, while churning out 732 yards and six TDs on the ground from his slotback position.
Senior Seth Anderson, an All-Area choice, and junior Kellen Jacobs each return their stellar blocking skills to the Bucs' offensive line, while hard-charging senior nose guard Greg Claeys will anchor the defensive trenches again.
Senior Justin Ritter will fill an outside linebacker spot in Blue Earth Area's 4-3 base defense to round out the state champion's returning starters.
Blue Earth Area opens the season by playing host to Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29, at Wilson Field in Blue Earth.
St. Peter (4-1 SCC, 7-2 overall): Brian Odland and the Saints will look to climb one more rung on the SCC ladder after earning runner-up league honors in 2012.
Despite a stellar regular season, St. Peter collided with a vastly-improved Redwood Valley team in the Section 3AAA quarterfinals, losing a narrow 17-14 decision to the Cardinals.
The Saints return seven highly-skilled starters on each side of the ball, including a pair of all-SCC selections in senior defensive end/running back Keegan McCabe and senior wide receiver/cornerback Cody Erickson.
McCabe and Erickson will be two of six two-way stalwarts coming back to Floyd B. Johnson Field, and will be joined by senior standouts Tom Steidler, Alex Willson, Brendan Reese and Ryan Hoehn, in addition to senior fullback Derek Meyer and junior defensive lineman Brandon Evans.
While St. Peter lost multi-tasking all-SCC signal-caller Josh Peymann to graduation, the 6-3, 178-pound Steidler will make the transition from tight end to quarterback on offense, while returning to his linebacker spot on defense.
Willson will resume his duties in the offensive line and at defensive end, Hoehn will deliver hits from his linebacker position and rotate at receiver, while Reese will look to catch passes at both wide receiver and safety.
"If we can stay injury-free, we can make a run again," said Odland.
St. Peter kicks off the season by traveling to Le Sueur-Henderson on Friday, Aug. 30.
Fairmont (3-2 SCC, 5-5 overall): Mat Mahoney and the Cardinals will seek to return to the top of both the SCC and Section 3AAA standings in 2013.
After compiling a 5-5 record on the heels of an injury-hampered season, the seventh-year Fairmont mentor will turn to four returning starters on offense and seven more on defense to post a winning record.
Luke Becker and Nick Roggow - a pair of All-Area and all-SCC choices a year ago - along with 2011 All-Area selection Jay Ruen, will return to double duty this fall.
Becker garnered the second-most catches (36) on the red-and-white for 534 yards and five TDs from his split end position, while producing 39 tackles from the defensive secondary.
The 6-3, 205-pound Roggow returns for his third varsity campaign in the offensive line after playing an integral role behind Fairmont's staggering 3,719 total yards of offense in 2012. Roggow also made 30 stops and recovered one fumble from his defensive end spot.
The 6-3, 185-pound Ruen will look to rebound from a broken ankle during his junior campaign. Despite limited playing time, the sure-handed Ruen still caught eight passes for 126 yards and two TDs at tight end, in addition to notching 43 tackles from his safety spot.
Senior Zach Brown, who missed a number of games due to a concussion a year ago, will join Roggow in the offensive line again, while 6-4, 265-pound junior Bailey Koppen and senior Kory Brown will handle duties in the defensive trenches for a second year in a row after generating 31 and 34 tackles, respectively.
Hard-hitting senior linebacker Joe Weber returns strength to the Cardinals' defense after pocketing 40 tackles in 2012, while jumping jack Josh Eversman will help patrol the defensive secondary after recording 31 stops and intercepting one pass as a junior.
"I like our senior leadership this season," said Mahoney. "We have a lot of talent, now we just have to put it all together. Only time will tell."
Fairmont opens its season by playing host to Worthington at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30, at Mahoney Field in Fairmont.
Waseca (2-3 SCC, 3-6 overall): Brad Wendland will look for the Bluejays to bounce back after an injury-plagued campaign in 2012.
The savvy mentor returns to Waseca's helm for an eighth straight season with increased overall numbers, including six returning starters on offense and seven more on the defensive side.
Senior standout Thomas O'Neil returns to handle signal-calling duties under center and will count on three returning starters in the offensive line for run-blocking and pass protection.
All-SCC selection Jake Busse, a 6-3, 240-pound senior, will use his strength and quickness at both guard on offense and at tackle on defense.
Senior offensive tackles Jordan Altman (6-4, 215) and Devin Williamson (6-5, 275) add talented size to the Bluejays' offensive wall, with junior tight end Tyler Kolander contributing blocking and pass-catching skills to the mix.
Senior Lucas Johnson returns to double duty at both wide receiver and safety, with 6-1, 175-pound senior Jacob Laube supplying solid defense from a corner spot.
Junior Isaiah Williamson will anchor the interior of Waseca's 4-4 base defensive unit, with the senior tandem of Jim Ebertowski and Brett Wickersheim making tackles from their linebacker positions.
"We brought back all 13 juniors from a year ago and that has really helped the way we've practiced so far," said Wendland, whose program made the move from Section 1 to Section 2 in Class AAAA during the offseason. "Schematically, we (coaching staff) are making some adjustments to fit our personnel better."
Waseca kicks off the season by making the long drive to Little Falls on Friday, Aug. 30.
New Ulm (1-4 SCC, 1-8 overall): Anthony Ortmann and the Eagles started practice a week early in preparation for their Week Zero clash with Class AA power Luverne on the Cardinals' home turf on Friday, Aug. 23.
Ortmann will look to put his hard-working trademark on the purple-and-white this fall after compiling a 1-8 mark during his head coaching debut.
The former Marshall High School and Southwest Minnesota State University standout will turn to an ample amount of returning starters - five on offense and seven on defense - in order to make progress within the SCC standings.
Senior nose guard Tevin Mooter and junior center/inside linebacker Jarin Spence headline the Eagles' projected starters after earning all-SCC accolades in 2012.
Senior tackle Peder Johnson, junior guard Andrew Stewart and senior guard Cole Wilfahrt will return to flank Spence in the offensive trenches, and provide blocking for starting senior fullback Jackson Yackley.
Yackley is expected to return to double duty by patrolling the defensive secondary with senior free safety Blake Piotter, while Stewart is projected to rejoin Spence and senior Bryan Dewanz at linebacker. Junior end Wyatt Oelberg rounds out the projected returning defensive starters.
St. James (0-5 SCC, 0-9 overall): Second-year head coach Jeff Whitney and the Saints will look to end the program's 28-game losing streak against SCC opponents this fall.
The former Southwest Minnesota State University football standout will look to instill his knowledge of the game to a solid returning nucleus consisting of five starters on offense and five more on defense.
All-SCC choice Ryan Menssen returns to two-way starting duty at both fullback and outside linebacker for the Saints in 2013.
Senior Walker Froehling is projected to return to a receiver spot, with the senior trio of Simon Beck, Jon Peterson and Adrian Torres stepping back into the offensive line to provide blocking and pass protection.
The senior tandem of Blake Grove and Justin Stevens are slated to bookend St. James' 4-3 base defense, with senior linebacker Will Runge and senior cornerback Kody Curry providing sure-handed tackling from the secondary.
St. James opens the season by playing host to Pipestone Area in a Week Zero game on Friday, Aug. 23, at 7 p.m. in St. James.