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2022 Season Preview - Part 2

08/28/2022, 9:00am CDT
By Jon Weisbrod

This is the second installment in a two-part series previewing the 2022 Owatonna Huskies football team and features the Players and Competition segments. The Details and Narrative portions are available online right now.

 

OWATONNA FOOTBALL SEASON PREVIEW, PART II

INDEX

>PLAYERS: Individual profiles of the top returning contributors.

>COMPETITION: A breakdown of Owatonna’s regular season opponents and where the Huskies fit within the district-wide picture.

Details (ONLINE NOW): Nuts-and-bolts preview with list of returning players, stats, projected positions and other basic team preview information.

Football Feature (ONLINE NOW): Looking back at 2021 and threading the needle between last year’s squad and how it connects to the new season. Also contains a position-by-position breakdown of the 2022 Huskies.  

PLAYERS

MLB DREW KRETLOW (5-10, 210), SR: An absolute brick wall in the middle of the defense, the senior is the latest in a long line of impact linebackers to cycle through the Owatonna football program. He led the Huskies in sacks (4.5) and finished third on the team in tackles and recovered two fumbles last season. Expect the senior to easily surpass 70 combined stops and immediately take charge of the defense as one of the team’s four elected captains.

DB/WR COLLIN VICK (5-11, 170), SR: In his first season at the varsity level, Vick enjoyed a breakout campaign, emerging as the Huskies’ most versatile defensive back in a unit that featured an assortment of talented athletes in three different grade levels. From acrobatic interceptions, to crashing the line of scrimmage, to blanketing receivers 50 yards down field, Vick displayed a well-rounded skillset and earned all-district honors. Big things are expected of the senior in 2022.

PK DREW HENSON (6-5, 195), SR: Perhaps the greatest singular weapon at his position in the state, Henson drilled 90% of his field goals (9-for-10), highlighted by a game-winning boot in a downpour against Class 4A state-ranked Kasson-Mantorville in Week 8. He’s equally strong on kickoffs and made roughly 95% of extra points. In fact, Henson performed so well as a junior that it will be extremely difficult to surpass what he accomplished from a raw statistical standpoint, but that’s not going to stop him from trying. Henson — listed as the No. 1 kicking prospect in the state by Minnesota Prep RedZone — spent the spring and summer months visiting a host of Division I football programs and is trending toward a future as a high-level college kicker.

RB/LB CONNER GREMS (5-9, 210), SR: Likely the only thing that prevented Grems from breaking out last year in similar fashion to classmates Vick, Kretlow and Trevor Schirmer were injuries. Taking the field in parts of just seven games, Grems displayed sideline-to-sideline skills and timely pass-rushing abilities at outside linebacker. It’s at running back, though, where he is likely to make his biggest impact moving forward. He boasts good speed — clocking a personal-best 4.55 second in the 40 in the offseason — and has the ideal physical composition to thrive as a true workhorse tailback. If Grems can stay healthy, it wouldn’t be shocking if he emerged as one of the top rushers in the Red Division and transform into an all-district-level performer.

OL MIKAH ELSTAD (5-11, 215), SR: After breaking into the starting lineup last year as a junior, Elstad progressed into an essential part of the Huskies’ offensive line and is poised to take the reigns as Owatonna’s leader up front. Voted one of the team’s four captains, Elstad plays much bigger than his 5-11, 215-pound frame and contributed greatly to the Huskies’ 350-yard rushing effort in the season finale against state-ranked Rochester Mayo. Joining a substantial lineage of Owatonna players over the last couple decades under the current coaching staff, Elstad is the quintessential Husky linemen that enters high school as a sub-200-pound freshman, marinates for three years behind a bevy of talented upperclassmen and comes out the other end fully-equipped to make a huge impact as a senior.

OL ETHAN ANDERSON (6-2, 215), SR: With classmate and all-district lineman, Trevor Schirmer, lost for the season due to injury, Anderson suddenly finds himself confronting a hyper-amplified role as he enters his senior year. He should be in the top defensive line rotation from Day 1 and earn enough playing time to at least double his production from last season (11 tackles, 1.0 sacks). On the other side of the ball, Anderson is one of the best overall athletes amongst all of the incoming linemen and fits the textbook mold of a pulling guard in Owatonna’s specific run-blocking system. Regardless of how things evolve over the next three months, he will be in prime position to leverage whatever opportunities are presented to him after packing on 15-20 pounds of muscle this past offseason. 

QB JACOB GINSKEY (5-11, 160), JR: If experience truly is the greatest instructor, Ginskey endured a Master Course in High School Quarterbacking last fall. The youngster was thrown into the fire by pure necessity and introduced himself to the Big Southeast District with a bang. Buoyed by a sparkling effort in his first career start in Week 4, Ginskey completed a combined 65% (39-for-60) of his passes for 536 total yards and eight combined touchdowns in his first three starts, all while operating the offense with an abridged version of the overall playbook. As one might expect, Ginskey endured some growing pains as defenses began adjusting and the competition heated up down the stretch. As his numbers ebbed and flowed on game nights, his capacity to increasingly absorb the playbook and take command of the offense improved on a daily basis throughout the week at practice. Ginskey — who grew two inches in the offseason and nearly stands 6-feet tall — possesses smooth mechanics, throws a great ball and demonstrated the ability to extend plays when flushed out of the pocket. Now, as he enters his junior year, he will have had 10 months to absorb the full extent of the playbook and solidify his growing range of mental and physical responsibilities. From a raw statistical standpoint, expect his numbers to level off somewhere between the extremes he produced last season and for his weekly output to include an improved interception-to-touchdown ratio.

WR AYDEN WALTER (5-9, 160), SR: Walter posted his best game of the season in his first career start at the varsity level, snaring six passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns against Rochester Mayo in Week 1. He added another multi-touchdown effort against Rochester JM in Week 6 and finished second only to Nick Williams in receiving yards (228), receptions (18) and touchdowns (4). Boasting quick-twitch athleticism and good speed, Walter is dangerous in space and will assume his responsibilities as the vital No. 1 option in the slot. Though the Huskies boast some intriguing upcoming talent at receiver, Walter should will probably lead the team in receptions and comfortably push past 400 yards and at least match his touchdown total from 2021.  

DB OWEN BEYER (6-0, 170), JR: Grasping the rare opportunity to secure a starting job as a sophomore, Beyer rose to the occasion and quickly proved he belonged — and then some. Opposing quarterbacks routinely challenged the youngster and he exhibited high level instincts and playmaking abilities operating on an island near the boundary. He officially led the team in pass breakups with six and rarely left the field, but Beyer’s impact seldom showed up on the stat sheet since he was regularly tasked with covering the opponents’ top receiving threat and a successful play often meant the ball didn’t come anywhere near his side of the field. He has grown to roughly 6-feet and 170 pounds and the physical rigors of the game will only become easier to handle as his career progresses. If Beyer can build off the foundation he established last year, he will immediately take the field as one of the top pure cornerbacks in the Red Division.

DB/KR/QB NOAH WELLNITZ (5-10, 160), SR: Swimming in a deep pool of defensive backs on Owatonna’s roster, Wellnitz settled into an important reserve role on defense as a junior, but found his niche as a dangerous kick returner. In Owatonna’s exciting 17-14 win over Kasson-Mantorville, Wellnitz scored the go-ahead TD when he returned a kickoff 80-plus yards for six points. This year, the speedy senior will be one of the main challengers to join the starting lineup in the defensive secondary while maintaining his important role on special teams. He will also provide depth at quarterback behind Ginskey.

OL/LB TORRIN SMITH (6-0, 215), JR: With the program’s stable of capable linemen taking a major hit this offseason, Smith is one of the most important incoming juniors on the team. Fortunately, he won’t be stepping into his elevated role completely blind as he was one of a handful of sophomores who saw the field in at least half of Owatonna’s regular season games in 2021, mainly on defense. Size is at a premium for the Huskies and Smith is comfortably within the 210-220-pound range and could find himself starting on both sides of the ball against Owatonna’s best opponents, similar to how Schirmer and Eli Spurgeon were utilized last season.

WR CALEB HULLOPETER (5-11, 165): Ringing up 100% of his production in the first six games of the season (4 catches, 59 yards, 1 TD), Hullopeter flashed glimpses of an outstanding playmaking ability and the potential to transform into a bona-fide No. 1 target at some point in his career. Time will tell if he’s equipped to accept those substantial responsibilities this season, but the fact remains there isn’t a player on Owatonna’s roster that can match his innate pass-catching skills and capacity to simply go up and get the ball. He’s always been one of the best overall football players at his grade level and will have a chance to fully showcase his abilities on Friday nights starting this fall.

OL/DL GRANT LOWER (6-3, 270), JR: High school football players of Lower’s physical stature don’t grow on trees, particularly those who are barely 16 years old and just a few years removed from junior high. The OHS staff was justifiably eager to get a good look at what they had in their big sophomore last fall and elevated Lower to the varsity level almost immediately. Ultimately, 2021 proved to be more of an unofficial apprenticeship than a true coming out party and Lower largely remained outside of the regular rotation on Friday nights. He did, however, train with the varsity during the week and saw action in four games. Entering the offseason with a newfound perspective, Lower took the initiative and devoted himself to the Huskies’ strength-training program. He now enters his junior season roughly 15 pounds lighter and a whole lot stronger. His noticeable physical transformation will open doors at a few key positions on both sides of the ball and it wouldn’t be shocking if Lower locked down a starting job at offensive tackle by Week 1. He might also be asked to shoulder a significant defensive role in the middle of Owatonna’s three-lineman front, though he’ll have to prove he’s equipped to handle the physical rigors of being a regular two-way player.

TE/DB JUSTIN GLEASON (6-3, 205): After spending his junior season sidelined with a broken leg, Gleason will be hard to keep off the field this year based on his natural combination of physical traits. He finished atop the podium in the long jump at the Class 3A individual state track and field competition last spring and recently turned heads by clocking the fastest time on the football team in the 40-yard dash during preseason testing. He’s a physical specimen and the only thing that is preventing from immediately jumping to the top of the depth chart is the simple fact that he hasn’t taken the field for a meaningful possession in almost two years. Offensively, he has been taking reps at tight end early on and could provide a rare field-stretching dimension at the position. On defense, Gleason could make for an enticing fit at strong cornerback, a position that requires a versatile, physical athlete capable of helping out against the run and covering bigger, stronger tight ends. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, that shouldn’t be a problem for Gleason.

WR CARTER JOHNSON (6-2, 165), SR: Working his way into the regular rotation, Johnson finished with five catches for 43 yards and saw extended action during Owatonna’s most important game of the season against Rochester Mayo in the section title game. The senior has good length for the position and is another one of the program’s high-level track and field athletes from last spring, finishing fifth in the 110 meter high hurdles at the MSHSL Track Meet. His playing time will see a significant uptick moving forward.

OL DAWSON RISSER (5-9, 215), SR: Despite lacking of high-end size, Risser climbed the depth chart early last season and drew several starts in the middle of the offensive. This year, he’s added some weight to his frame and will be in the mix to absorb one of the starting vacancies at guard and can also play center.

COMPETITION

BIG SOUTHEAST DISTRICT 2021

 

Red

Overall

 

 

W

L

W

L

1

Mankato West

7

0

8

0

2

Mayo

6

1

6

1

3

New Prague

5

2

6

2

4

Owatonna

4

3

5

3

5

Northfield

3

4

3

5

6

Century

2

5

3

5

7

John Marshall

1

6

1

7

8

Austin

0

7

1

7


TOP TIER: Rochester Mayo, Mankato West, New Prague, Kasson-Mantorville

 

In the second of the standard two-year scheduling cycle, Owatonna will take on the same sequence of teams as it did in 2021, only the sights will be flipped. That means Week 1 sets up an immediate rematch with ROCHESTER MAYO in the final season-opener at the current OHS football stadium on Sept. 2.

The Spartans bookended the Huskies’ schedule last year, opening the campaign with a 58-31 victory in early-September before defeating Owatonna, 38-33, in the Section 1-5A championship almost exactly two months later.

With Trevor Schirmer having been lost for the season, Mayo jumped ahead of Owatonna as the team with the most returning all-district/honorable mention players in the Big Southeast with four, but that doesn’t begin to paint the full picture. Attrition hit the Spartans especially hard at the top and the list of key players lost to graduation features nine reigning all-league athletes, including the program’s all-time leading receiver, Cayden Holcomb (District Offensive POY), record-setting quarterback, Bennett Ellsworth, and game-breaking tailback, Noah Smith. Holcomb and Smith also combined for 100 tackles, three interceptions and scored one defensive TD apiece.

Despite the departure of several high-impact weapons, there’s still plenty of meat left on the bone within the Spartans’ program. Mayo appears particularly loaded in the junior class, headlined by electric two-way star, Carter Holcomb. He has already accumulated more than 1,000 career receiving yards — 823 of which came last season — and is regarded as one of the top college football recruits in the state of Minnesota for the Class of 2024. James Mankaka — whose brother, Michael, is a sophomore walk-on at Clemson — is uber-fast and has unofficially jumped from 140 to 170 pounds this offseason according to his most recent measurables posted online. Like the younger Holcomb, Mankaka started every game last season as a sophomore and displayed major playmaking abilities in the defensive secondary.

The Spartans also retain some serious beef up front and will be difficult to push around in the trenches. Rudy Lozoya is tough as nails on the defensive front and will be joined by returning linemen Ethan Kramer (6-1, 215), Jorge Martinez (6-3, 245), Aidan Ris (6-1, 240) and Zach Condon (6-1, 240)

Replacing three all-time players will take some time, and it will be interesting to see where the Spartans are in this process come Week 1 when they travel to Owatonna. Bottom line, Mayo simply brings back too many playmakers and possesses too much overall size to not be considered one of the preseason favorites in the Big Southeast District and Section 1-5A.

Typically, a high school football team that graduates 18 starters from the previous season would be expected to take a few steps back, endure some growing pains and rebuild its foundation.

MANKATO WEST isn’t your “typical” high school football team.  More accurately, Mankato West isn’t your typical high school football program.

The Scarlets are one of the few teams in the entire state, in any classification, where graduation rates and roster turnover simply don’t affect their overall aspirations. Despite enduring a head coaching transition in 2017, West hasn’t missed a beat and is in the midst of a 15-year stretch of dominance that only one current Class 5A program can even begin to match, that being Owatonna, of course. Since 2006, Mankato West has fashioned a staggering .843 winning percentage, and that includes the 2012 season when the Scarlets finished 4-7 after being forced to forfeit four games after it was discovered they used an ineligible player.

Last year, West secured the program’s fifth state championship, ninth regular season league title and led all Big Southeast District teams with 13 all-league or honorable mention honorees. Of the group, all-but two didn’t graduate in the offseason. Needless to say, the Scarlets will look vastly different from a personnel standpoint compared to the last couple of seasons and will lean heavily on a collection of battle-tested seniors and a heralded group of juniors to fill the expansive voids in the regular rotations.

Defensive back Damian Riewe (all-district) and lineman Trenton Fontaine (honorable mention) have already proven to be a pair of the best players at their respective positions in the Red Division and will provide stability at a couple important spots on the defense.

The West staff is one of the best in the state at fostering next-level quarterbacks, and Bart McAninch appears to be the upcoming predecessor to all-district gun-slinger, Zander Dittbenner. The junior is roughly the same size as Dittbenner, standing 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, and is perhaps even more dangerous with his legs, routinely shredding defenses on the ground during his B-Squad playing days. The Scarlets own several suitable candidates to share the load at RB1 and fill the void of departed 2021 starter Walker Britz, but the staff will have their work cut out for them re-building depth at receiver after the loss of Division I-bound Mehki Collins along with the team’s No. 2 and No. 3 pass-catching weapons from a year ago.

It would be unrealistic to expect the Scarlets to replicate what last year’s team accomplished — finishing 13-0 and outscoring opponents by an average score of 42-5 — yet it would be equally impractical to assume they won’t be near the front of the pack in the race for the district title. Most of the Scarlets’ B-Squad players could have started on several Big Southeast District varsity teams last year and were simply stuck behind a transcendent 2022 senior class that did not lose a game in their final two seasons in the program. In fact, Mankato West hasn’t dropped a contest since Nov. 1, 2019 in the section tournament and hasn’t lost a regular season game since Oct. 4 of the same year.

Until further notice, consider the Scarlets the preseason favorites in the Big Southeast District Red Division.

Outside Mayo, West and Owatonna, NEW PRAGUE is the third team that appears equipped to challenge for the sub-district title, at least on paper. The Trojans saw the bulk of their frontline rotations on both sides of the ball gutted by graduation, but the program displayed signs of tangible progression last year that should provide some momentum heading into the new season.

In 2021, New Prague earned its first victory over Owatonna in program history and its only three losses came against Prep Bowl winner Mankato West (twice) and Section 1-5A champion, Rochester Mayo. Competing in the state’s deepest Class 5A bracket (Section 2), New Prague was also one of the final four teams remaining in the field when the second weekend of postseason action rolled around after they beat Mankato East in the opening round.

Matt Schoenecker (6-7, 265) committed to the University of North Dakota recently and became the Trojans’ first player to accept a football scholarship from a Division I program since New Prague joined the Big Southeast District in 2015. He will spearhead a gnarly offensive line that rolls back two additional starters and help spring a deep stable of capable, albeit unproven, ball-carriers.

New Prague has always presented a unique challenge based on its old-school running style and tricky defensive schemes, and that won’t change this year.

The final team on Owatonna’s schedule, literally, is Week 8 opponent KASSON-MANTORVILLE. Despite being one of the smallest schools in Class 4A, the Komets advanced all the way to the Prep Bowl last year before losing to perennial power, Hutchinson, 42-14. As one might expect, last year’s team was reinforced by an ultra-talented senior class, five of which made the all-district squad.

Despite the loss of the groundbreaking Class of 2022, The KoMets should still provide a considerable challenge for the Huskies at a unique point on the schedule. Similar to last season, the game is slated to kickoff after the postseason brackets will have been solidified and with only a few days to prepare on a short week. Essentially, the contest is little more than a playoff primer and an opportunity to gain some sort of momentum heading into the do-or-die section tournament.

K-M returns three reigning all-league performers from a season ago, one of which is perhaps the singular most physically-imposing lineman outside of Class 6A in Reese Tripp. At a legitimate 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, the future Minnesota Golden Gopher is a mammoth human being and worth his already considerable weight in gold playing in a league that has experienced a recent decline in participation from big-bodied athletes that normally fill the offensive and defensive lines. He is a single-person gameplan-wrecker, but the KoMet staff will need to proceed with caution when deploying their unique giant, because the only thing preventing him from routinely dominating in the trenches is fatigue and potential injury.

SECOND TIER: Rochester Century, Northfield, Rochester John Marshall

Frequently there is at least one team on Owatonna’s schedule that sneaks up on the league and outperforms its preseason expectations, and if there is a squad that fits that mold in 2022, it’s ROCHESTER CENTURY.

The Panthers were one of the few teams to put an underclassman on the all-district team last year when sophomore Jake Wills earned honorable mention consideration as a receiver/defensive back and he joins a large Class of 2024 that saw multiple players earn meaningful varsity playing time last fall. In fact, the Panthers listed more sophomores on their varsity roster than any other single class in 2021 and have routinely proven to be a decent challenge for both Owatonna and Mankato West in both program’s recent era of dominance. In fact, Century is one of the few teams to beat the Scarlets by more than 20 points in the last two decades — winning 35-14 early in the 2019 regular season — and nearly escaped Owatonna with a victory last year in a 16-14 decision in Week 2.

ROCHESTER JOHN MARSHALL is probably the team on Owatonna’s schedule with the most preseason ambiguity after long-time coach Kevin Kirkeby stepped down in January after averaging just two wins per season in his final five years at the helm.

Replacing Kirkeby will be Rochester-native and 2011 Century graduate, Kyle Riggot. The former successful Division II football player and captain at Minnesota State-Mankato should provide the Rockets with a renewed sense of purpose and invigorate a struggling program that has not finished above .500 since 2015.

Riggot inherits an interesting roster that includes a few players that possess more raw potential than actual on-field results. Zechariah Ladu, for instance, has climbed all the way up to No. 16 on the most recent list of Minnesota Prep RedZone’s top 100 college recruits for the Class of 2024, likely due exclusively to his superficial blend of size (6-foot-5) and measurables sonce he wasn’t even on the opposing when the Rockets visited Owatonna in Week 6 last October.

Darius Jordan also found his way into the top 50 for the junior class as a 6-foot-4, 150-pound quarterback and has more experience than Ladu. Though he displayed flashes of good speed and strong footwork, Jordan finished just 10-for-23 for 43 passing yards in the Huskies’ blowout win over JM last season and will need to improve drastically in order to leverage his natural athletic tools.

Riggot’s ability to tap into his new program’s incoming wave of athletically-gifted players and maximize their potential will determine the entire direction of the program moving forward. The precedent has been set for John Marshall to compete on a bigger stage as the Rockets reached the state tournament as recently as 2015 and were a consistent section contender throughout the mid-90s to early-2000s.

The final Class 5A opponent on Owatonna’s schedule just north of the “rebuilding” cluster and south of “contender” status is NORTHFIELD. Despite losing all six of last season’s all-district honorees to graduation, the Raiders have some promising talent at key positions such as quarterback Soren Richardson and receiver Austin Koep. The program will also be in its second season under head coach Brent Yule and should be fully-acclimated to his schemes, style and overall expectations. For what it’s worth, Northfield is also the only program outside of OHS and West to claim a Big Nine Conference or Big Southeast Division title in the last 14 years.

THIRD TIER: Austin

The team on Owatonna’s schedule that appears the furthest from seriously contending for district and section supremacy is AUSTIN. The Packers bring back a couple all-district honorable mention players in two-way speedster Manny Guy (WR/DB) and big lineman Luke Owens (6-3, 276), but lacks high-level athletes from a sheer numbers’ standpoint and has been stuck in a rudderless drift for several years, combining for a 6-28 overall record in the last four seasons. Since current head coach Ed Schmitt took over prior to the 2020 season, the Packers are just 2-14.

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