With both teams opening a week earlier than they had in the past few years, the 2019 South Dakota high school football season is a strong measuring stick for both for St. Thomas More and Hot Springs.
The two Black Hills Conference rivals — back in the Class B ranks — face off Friday night at Dutton Field (6 p.m.).
It's expected to a good season for the two veteran head coaches — STM's Wayne Sullivan is in his 29th season and Ben Kramer of a Hot Springs in his 16th year at the helm.
STM was ranked second in Class B in the first prep poll by the state's media and coaches association, while the Bison also received some votes but were not rated in the top five.
"Right out of the chute we have Hot Springs. Coach Kramer does a phenomenal job," said Sullivan. "In these programs you have some coaches who have been around now for a while that have really built strong programs. They don’t rebuild, they reload. That’s a lot of what Hot springs does with Coach Kramer. We’re very excited out of the gate to have a competitive game. I think it will be a knock-down, drag out.”
Kramer said they will throw what they have at the Cavs, so if STM can stop them, he said they'll beat them.
"They (STM) will be in the mix when it comes playoffs time," Kramer said. "We're just trying to clean things up, make good decisions and not make mistakes. They are notorious for when a team makes a mistake, they'll capitalize on it."
The Cavaliers have a good chunk of their team back from last year's 6-4 campaign that saw them fall to Dakota Valley 46-30 in the Class A playoffs.
Led by seniors Ryder Kirsch at quarterback and Grant Huber at wide receiver, Sullivan told his team earlier this week that they will have to play with a chip on their shoulder.
“I told them that everybody is going to tell you how good you are because you have just about everybody back. But you haven’t proved anything," he said. "We love the experience we have coming back and we love where we have certain guys in certain positions.
"Every time we have had a very good quarterback, it bodes well. But we have pieces around him. Our front five have all played varsity up front. Our receiver is back, our running backs. We have the pieces, now we have to play as a team."
In his third year at a starter, the 6-foot-6 Kirsch has thrown for over 4,000 yards and 51 touchdowns in his career.
"He has 18 games under his belt, so he is a seasoned veteran. The thing he has done better is he has actually taken his weaknesses and worked on them — getting the ball out quicker, hitting the short passes, not trying to go long ball all of the time," Sullivan said. "I think that builds confidence, it builds a good flow for the team. His capability to read defenses and make audibles is going to be a huge difference for us."
Huber caught 51 passes last season and was a Class A All-State performer at defensive back.
"They will find out where he is lined up at on that first play," Sullivan said.
Other speedsters to look at are receivers include Sam Matthes, Andrew Smith and Jed Sullivan, along with tight end Jake Goble. Running the football will be Nick Lembke and Ryan Wojik.
Earlier this week, Sullivan said he was so anxious for the season to begin that he could barely talk. Then he did.
“Every game is a playoff for us. Now with the new format, they get you one through 16 in the seeding. You have to be in the top two seeds to have all of the playoff games at home," he said. "Even in my 29th season, I still have butterflies. It’s game week, it is exciting. I told my wife, Laurie, if I don’t ever have that feeling, it is time to get out of coaching. But I still get it every year.”
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For the Bison, it's the next man up. At quarterback, that will be 6-3 sophomore Brynn Thompson, who backed up Morgan Harkless, now at Chadron State.
"Brynn is going to be a good one, he is good right now," Kramer said. "He got some varsity snaps last year and controlled the JV. For him it is a lot of review and getting him used to varsity game speed. He knows the system and he is confident, a good leader and takes control of the huddle, takes control of offense. It's just a matter of getting varsity snaps under his belt."
At running back will be senior Gavin Heil, who got some snaps last season, and junior Garrett Glines, who transferred from Chadron, Neb.
The Bison are also strong up front, led by 6-1, 260-pound senior Caleb Maciejewski and 6-4 220-pond senior Matt Wendland, along with 220-pound senior Teejay Atwood. Marcus Harkless, a 220-pound junior, was the team's starting center two seasons ago.
"We have a ton of experience up front," Kramer said.
Kramer said the Bison have had somewhat of a history of coming out slow to begin the season, so they changed things up a bit in fall camp.
“We have to try to find a way to avoid that (starting slow)," he said. "We've tried get more situational type of stuff, to be better prepared. We opened last with Tri-Valley and a couple years ago we opened with Lennox, and had some success.
"We got that monkey off of our back that we couldn’t win that first game. It took a lot of years. We think we have a plan for that first game that will put us in position to be successful."
Other games to watch
Likely the biggest 9-man West River game in Week 0 will see Harding County at Wall, with kickoff at 7 p.m.
Both are coming off state playoff seasons and both are looking to make a dent this season.
Wall, 10-1 last season, came one game from the Dome last season, falling to Colome 74-28 in the state 9B semifinals. The Eagles were hit by graduation, but have some talent returning as they move up to the 9A ranks.
“We lost a talented senior class, but we have some key pieces returning, as well as other players that are excited for a big opportunity this year," Wall coach Lex Heathershaw said.
Harding County (7-2 last season) also earned a trip to the playoffs last season, falling to Kadoka Area 12-8 in he first round of the playoffs,
The Ranchers, ranked first in the media 9B poll, are led by all-state performer Zack Anders and quarterback Camden Hett.
"We will have a very balanced attack and will be hard to stop," longtime Harding County coach Jay Wammen said. "We have a very good combination of running and passing."
Other area games include Kadoka Area at Rapid City Christian (7 p.m.), Lead-Deadwood at Bennett County (6:30 p.m.), Jones County/White River at Hill City (6:30 p.m.) and Stanley County at Winner (6:30 p.m.).