The Mankato Free Press
---- — The lights, the atmosphere, the intensity.
Ah, yes. It's high-school football time in the area, and there is no single event that can draw a school and community together quite like a Friday night football game.
The high-school football season began last week, but most teams played their opener Thursday or will tonight. The last three weeks of practice has built a lot of optimism, some of which will continue into this weekend and some that will get tested by the results of the first game.
Some storylines to watch over the next two months:
Mankato West quarterback Ryan Schlichte has gotten a lot of publicity this summer, and it looks like the junior is on a similar path as former teammate Philip Nelson. But can Schlichte improve from an outstanding sophomore season, as Nelson did, to lead the Scarlets back to the state playoffs and keep the big-time recruiters interested?
He has some nice help in veteran receivers Will Claussen and Connor Watts, and running back Corey Johnson has the speed to be a game-breaker.
But it won't be an easy season. The Scarlets host Owatonna in Week 3 and play at Rochester John Marshall and Rochester Mayo, teams that defeated West last season.
Blue Earth Area returns a solid group from last season's surprising state championship team. Quarterback Kysten Zierke is a run-pass threat, and Gus Phillips and David Franta were key running backs on last season's team.
The Bucs usually come up with some pretty good linemen so it wouldn't be surprising to see BEA back in the state tournament, trying to repeat.
The Southern Minnesota Conference has always been considered a pretty good Class A league. New Ulm Cathedral won a state championship in 2010 and was runner-up in 2006. Springfield and Sleepy Eye have both won state titles in the last 13 years, and Wabasso had a nice run of state-tournament teams in the last decade.
That league got a little stronger this season, returning to a full 10-team field. Minnesota Valley Lutheran had some success in the Southern Minnesota before moving to the Gopher Valley, but the Chargers are back. Martin County West also jumps from the Gopher Valley to the Southern Minnesota as the only Class AA school in the league.
The winner of the Southern Minnesota will be a strong contender to get to the state playoffs and challenge for the championship.
Whatever happens, it's going to be fun to watch. It always is.
Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.