South Dakota Gridiron Report: Ranking the seven state champions' prospects to win titles again in 2023

Aug. 28—MITCHELL — All seven classes of high school football were in action last Friday night for the first time in 2023, as the championship chase got fully underway.

History tells us that at least one of the state football champions crowned last November will repeat in 2023. With the exception of 2012 to 2013, the year Class 11AAA was introduced, there has been at least one successful title defense in every season since 1997, a time when there were five total football classifications.

Over the past five years, a champion has successfully defended their state title on 10 occasions — Pierre (five times — 2018, '19, '20, '21, '22), Canistota/Freeman (twice — 2019, '20), Sioux Falls Christian (2018), Winner (2021) and Platte-Geddes (2021).

Class 11AAA, Class 11A and Class 9B have gone the longest without a repeat champion, with 2017 marking the most recent instance for all three classes. (Note: The 2017 Class 9B champion was Colman-Egan, which had won in Class 9A the season before. For a true repeat within the smallest enrollment classification, Kimball is the most recent in 2003 and 2004.)

After seeing all seven classes in action for the first time this season in Week 1, we attempt to tackle the question: Who will join the list and extend the streak this year?

To be sure, this collection of seven teams is a lot more interesting than it was last week, especially with all three nine-man champions dropping their games.

Here's a look at how we break it down:

1. Dell Rapids

Class 11A

Anytime a championship team brings back its starting quarterback and the title game Most Valuable Player, that's a good place to start. For the Quarriers, those roles are one and the same in South Dakota State commit Jack Henry. Dell Rapids has 14 seniors on the team tasked with repeating, including Henry and fellow all-state talents in running back Mason Stubbe, defensive lineman Treyse Eastman and linebacker Aiden Geraets. The Quarriers opened the year with a strong showing in a 44-13 thrashing of Madison. The top title contender aside from Dell Rapids might take some time to emerge, with Hot Springs (11B), Canton and Dakota Valley as the only currently ranked teams on the Dell Rapids schedule, and notably no Lennox, Sioux Falls Christian or West Central.

2. Pierre

Class 11AA

Let's be honest here: After six consecutive state championships, history is on the Governors' side. Starting what would be a sixth-straight title defense, the green-clad champions looked the part in their season opener, blanking fifth-ranked Aberdeen Central 32-0 on the Golden Eagles' home turf. Under the leadership of coach Steve Steele, the Governors have displayed a remarkable ability to reload from year to year, and 2023 looks to be no exception. In addition to the defense pitching a shutout, new starting quarterback Cade Kaiser looked to be the latest in a long line of standout signal-callers, accounting for 392 total yards and five touchdowns. It seems likely that Tea Area and Yankton will both be factors as the Govs' chief competition but more needs to be learned after that.

3. Sioux Falls Jefferson

Class 11AAA

It's expected that Class 11AAA is going to be highly competitive this season — see the opening weekend of the season for reference — and Jefferson can be firmly in the mix after earning a tough 28-21 overtime win over Harrisburg, the squad the Cavaliers defeated for the 2022 state championship, on Friday night. Led by senior linebacker Thomas Heiberger and defensive back Dawson Sechser, the Cavaliers have a lot of talent back on defense and five of the team's six captains make their name on defense. Lincoln, Harrisburg, Brandon Valley and O'Gorman are expected to challenge for a title as well, but given how well Jefferson played in Week 1 after experiencing major roster turnover in the third season as a program, it would be foolish to write off the Cavaliers.

4. Gregory

Class 9A

Gregory has championship MVP quarterback Rylan Peck, the 2022 Mitchell Republic football player of the year, and another all-state talent in fullback/H-back and linebacker Trey Murray back as headliners from last year's team, giving them a solid base to build around in their bid to become the second Gorillas team to repeat in the program's long history. The Gorillas started the season as the preseason No. 1-ranked squad but experienced a setback in their season opener last Friday, dropping a 48-32 contest to a No. 3 Wolsey-Wessington team that already had a game under its belt. Gregory is almost assuredly going to be a factor in this division, but it's going to get more crowded with Wolsey-Wessington, Warner and Canistota emerging as the lead chasers early.

5. Elk Point-Jefferson

Class 11B

Elk Point-Jefferson graduated 15 seniors from last year's state championship team, which continued to get better as the year went on. But so far, the new class of Huskies has picked up right where last year's crew left off with a pair of lopsided victories. Coach Jake Terry showed the value of his leadership in 2022 and running back Jake Gale, quarterback Keaton Gale and receiver Carson Timmins have shown up early in the season to be dynamic offensive players.

As discussed below, they have a key matchup with third-ranked Sioux Valley on Friday in Volga, which will provide an early measuring tape for the Huskies after they breezed to 2-0, in addition to hosting Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan in the regular-season finale.

6. Hitchcock-Tulare

Class 9B

History is up against the Patriots. As previously highlighted, the last time a repeat within Class 9B occurred was nearly two decades ago. Since then, just two defending champions have even made it back to the DakotaDome the next season (H-T in 2010 and Langford Area in 2016). The Patriots went undefeated last season and lost seven seniors, but running back Erik Salmen is back again this season, along with fellow senior quarterback Brendan Nowell. H-T ran into an early wall in a 40-0 loss to Faulkton Area on Friday but this class is wide open enough that H-T is going to be a difficult out at any point of the postseason.

7. Wall

Class 9AA

Making a breakthrough several years in the making, Wall largely dominated last season en route to the first 9-man football championship from a Mountain Time Zone team since 2002. Last year's Eagles landed eight players on the all-state team, though six have since graduated. The returners, quarterback/linebacker Burk Blasius and running back/safety Brodi Sundall will be instrumental in determining how far Wall can go in 2023. Last week provided an early stumbling block, as the Eagles, which started as the preseason No. 2 in Class 9AA, were grounded by Class 9A Philip. Wall is still going to be a contender but this division looks like it will be super-competitive once again.

* Philip upsets Wall: All credit to the Scotties for earning the road win over their nearby rivals, managing to slow down the Eagles and getting a critical pick-six in the second half to go up by 10 and close out the upset. It was Philip's season opener and with its next five games against opponents with a combined 11-32 record from 2022, the Scotties have to be on the radar in Class 9A for at least the next few weeks.

* Canistota over Howard: Howard made a statement in support of its preseason No. 1 ranking in Class 9AA with a dominant 26-0 defeat of Hanson in Week 0. But Class 9A No. 4 Canistota was more than up to the challenge last week, controlling the Tigers in a 30-18 win. With a shakeup among other ranked squads in Class 9A, the Hawks should rise this week.

* Faulkton Area stomps No. 1: The Trojans put the rest of Class 9B on notice by rolling over defending champion and No. 1-ranked Hitchcock-Tulare on the road. Garrett Cramer had three touchdowns on the ground to pace Faulkton Area, which is 2-0.

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* How about the touchdown connection from O'Gorman's Hayden Groos to Ryland Satter to win the Dakota Bowl for the Knights over Brandon Valley?

* Tytan Tyron had three touchdown catches for Harrisburg in the Tigers' overtime loss

* Yankton's Shaylor Platt had 194 total yards and two touchdowns in the Bucks' win over Mitchell.

* Layke Wold, of Chester, accounted for nine touchdowns (six passing, three rushing) for the Flyers.

* Macklen Weber scored four touchdowns for Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan in a home victory over Flandreau, including touchdowns rushing, receiving and returning a kickoff.

* Avon's Aziah Meyer rushed for 115 rushing yards on nine carries, including touchdown runs of 49, 11 and 7 yards, and added an 80-yard kickoff return touchdown as the Pirates went to 2-0.

* Chamberlain's Cruz Soulek threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns for the Cubs at Lennox.

* Dell Rapids' Mason Stubbe rushed for 203 yards on 10 carries and scored four times.

* Britton-Hecla's Bryce Hawkinson scored three touchdowns on the ground and rushed for 155 yards on 19 carries in the Braves' 44-16 win over Florence/Henry.

Here are three games on next week's schedule we're fired up for:

* Parkston at Wolsey-Wessington: It's only the third week of the season, but this game has massive implications both for the Missouri Valley Conference and the rest of the season in their respective classes. The two teams have looked great, with the teams each averaging 50 points per game. The winner gets another high-quality victory for seed points purposes in their class.

* Avon at FMFA: A 2 p.m. Friday matinee pits two high-flying offenses against one other with a 3-0 start on the line. Both sides have put up more than 100 total points in two games, though it'll be a clash of styles in the Class 9B versus Class 9AA tilt. The Pirates are a multi-headed ground attack, while the Phoenix aren't afraid to air it out. Afternoon fireworks may be on the cards this week.

* Elk Point-Jefferson at Sioux Valley: A pair of 2-0 teams that are ranked in the top-five take the field on Friday night in Volga. Both teams have something to prove, with the Cossacks trying to assert themselves at the top of the division and EPJ seeking to show last year's state championship success was only the start of something great.