HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Spartans vs. Warriors marquee matchup
Can a season opener be a better matchup?
The defending Central Lakes Conference champion Rocori Spartans, who lost to Brainerd in last year’s opener but ran the table and went on to capture the Class 4A state championship.
The Brainerd Warriors, conference champions with Rocori, and runners-up in Section 8-5A, their 10th section final appearance in 17 years.
The Spartans and Warriors clash Friday night at Adamson Field in Brainerd as the 2012 season kicks off in earnest. Brainerd won 28-20 last year. Warriors coach Ron Stolski, who begins his 51st season as a head coach, expects another close game.
“I always believe you’re the champion until someone dethrones you, and they are the defending 4A champions,” Stolski said. “We respect that a lot.
In 2011, Brainerd built a 28-6 lead before the Spartans scored twice in the final 4-plus minutes. Rocori gained 165 of its 297 total yards in the fourth quarter.
“Last year, as I recall, it was a pretty a clean game, there weren’t a lot of mistakes by either side,” Stolski said. “In an opener, you’re always anxious about being sure your game is in as good a form as it can be, keep the penalties down, handle the football, all those things that help you win.”
Rocori coach Mike Rowe said winning it all has boosted enthusiasm throughout the program.
“Our numbers are as high as they’ve ever been in our district,” he said. “In grades 6-12 we have about 300 boys playing football. We’re usually at about 250. ... The enthusiasm from the kids and fans has been really good.”
The Spartans beat Bemidji 17-10 at the Metrodome for their first state football championship. The Spartans capitalized on four Lumberjacks turnovers, returning an interception for a score, and blocked a punt. Rocori won despite being outgained 301-111 in total yards and 23-7 in first downs.
Rowe said he didn’t have much time to the title.
“Our banquet was the Sunday right after winning the title so I didn’t get closure until about two or three weeks down the road, and being busy it really never hit home,” he said. “I was sad that it was over. We had such nice group of kids. They were all good young men. They all will be very good people.
“We graduated 25 seniors. They were my first sophomore class, and I was close with them. It was all the emotions in one shot.”
Rocori returns four starters on offense and four on defense. Senior quarterback Mac Mueller also will start at free safety.
“He will be the main piece of our offense,” Rowe said.
Nick Thorpe will start at running back and defensive tackle. Rowe said Jake Huber, Derek Kuechle and Jeron Terres are talented receivers.
Levi Klein and Colton Johnson are “two guys we hope will be in the backfield a lot,” Rowe said.
Adam Dingmann, one of the team’s top tacklers, returns at linebacker.
Brainerd returns 10 players who were full- or part-time starters in 2011. Stolski said he and his coaching staff like the progress the team has made since opening camp Aug. 13 and it’s time to play a game.
“We always break the season into three parts,” Stolski said. “The first part is the first two weeks. Part Two is the regular season and conference schedule. Part Three is the playoffs. We’re ready to start Part Two.
“The biggest thing with both sides is the inexperience you have, and where you have it. The good news is we have a couple linemen that played, some young backs but at least they played, and some young defenders that played. You’re always anxious to see how you will respond.”
Rowe said the Spartans are underdogs Friday but relish the challenge of playing a Class 6A school.
“We’re coming up there with everything to gain, and nothing to lose,” he said. “It will be a great test for us. How we do against Brainerd will kind of showcase how our season will go.”
Mike Bialka, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.