Northfield football coach Bubba Sullivan was hoping his squad would “start the season well and build some confidence.”

The Raiders have done just that, winning their first six games. Sullivan is now eager to find out if the group can take the next step — win a section championship.

“We had high expectation and aspirations coming into the season,” Northfield senior quarterback/defensive end Lars Prestemon said. “We want to go back to the section finals.”

The Raiders’ season ended each of the previous three years in the section finals, the first time in Class 5A, Section 2, and the past two years in Section 1.

“One thing that this team has done is that every time we have challenged them, whether it be to practice with more energy, show more leadership, or fight through adversity, they have done it,” Sullivan said.

Northfield went 7-3 a year ago, with two of the setbacks coming at the hands of Owatonna, including the section championship. Owatonna is ranked No. 1 in Class 5A, and was the No. 5 Raiders’ opponent in Week 7.

“Owatonna is really what stands in our way,” Raiders senior defensive tackle/offensive guard Geoff Runningen said. “They have a tough team. We have to play a near perfect game to beat Owatonna.”

Northfield’s last state tournament appearance was in 2010. It lost to St. Thomas Academy 35-21 in the Class 4A state quarterfinals.

“It’s a hurdle we would like to clear, ” Prestemon said. “We want to be playing our best football come playoff time.”

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Raiders’ 1997 state championship — the only one in program history. The team was honored during homecoming festivities, and was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame. Chad Setterstrom, a guard who starred at Northern Iowa and was a backup with the New Orleans Saints, returned home to talk to this year’s squad.

“Him coming back and talking to us was just awesome,” Runningen said. “He said the one thing you will never forget is your high school football career.”

Setterstrom provided the Raiders with even more incentive.

“We’re a young team with a lot of room to still improve,” said Prestemon, who hasn’t played on the defensive side of the ball the past few weeks because of an AC joint separation in the shoulder. “We’re getting better each practice.”

The Raiders’ defensive unit was outstanding the first six weeks of the season despite losing second leading tackler senior linebacker/running back Brandon Foster in the fourth game to an season-ending injury. They were only yielding 213 yards (113 rushing and 100 passing) and 10.8 points per game.

“The defense has really anchored us so far,” Sullivan said. “Defensive coordinator Mark Woitalla has done a tremendous job getting our guys in the right spots, and playing very good team defense.”

The defense had only given up 24 second-half points into the Owatonna game.

“We really gel in the second half when our opponents are getting tired,” said Runningen, who has a team-leading 54 tackles and three sacks. “We get a lot of adrenaline going.”

Which now needs to carry over to the offensive unit.

“For the most part I do a pretty good job as a game manager, but I still can do a lot better,” Prestemon said. He has completed 45 of 82 passes for 768 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions and rushed for 120 yards and six touchdowns on 40 carries. “We have to starting playing better because we’re playing better teams now.”

Prestemon realizes that it’s all about execution if the Raiders want to reach their final destination.

“Our coaches come up with a great game plan every week,” Prestemon said. “We have to follow their instructions, and play solid football.”