5A emerging as best class with a state field

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2013 - 12:34 AM

The football class with the state’s second-largest schools has non-metro teams, four unbeatens and star power.

Minneapolis Washburn running back Jeff Jones, the state’s top Division I prospect, is one of the skilled players in Class 5A.

Photo: Richard Tsong-taatarii •richard tsong-taatarii@startribune.com,

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With returning favorites sapping some intrigue from most classes of Minnesota high school football, a fresher Class 5A field stands apart.

A new champion will be crowned as Totino-Grace opted up to play in Class 6A, home to the 32 teams from the state’s biggest schools. Every one of them is from the metro area, making 5A the premier statewide class.

And Class 5A football is good. Heading into Friday’s section finals, four undefeated teams — Rogers, Chaska, Owatonna and Brainerd —and some highly coveted college recruits dot the landscape.

Brainerd’s Ron Stolski, in his 52nd season as head coach, said “football across the board in Minnesota has never been better” and 5A is drawing keen interest.

Stolski’s Warriors are 9-0 and rank as one of 5A’s top teams. A year ago, Brainerd was the only non-metro team in the first year of Class 6A. Stolski’s teams had long been placed in the largest class and enjoyed some success. Brainerd upset Wayzata in 2007 and Eden Prairie in 2010 in the state quarterfinals.

The Trojans and Eagles have won a combined seven of the past eight state titles in the largest class. With enrollments of more than 3,000 students each, those two schools dwarfed the smallest schools in the old six-class system. Adding a seventh class, 6A, ensured the largest school in 5A would no longer be more than double the enrollment of the smallest.

Getting placed in 5A this season, Stolski said, was a better fit.

“You have a shot if you have a one-game tournament,” Stolski said. “But you play your heart out to win and then the next team is every bit as good or better. With the way 5A is now, it gives you a more realistic shot to advance to the final four or final two.”

Mankato West coach Mark Esch concurs. When the playoffs started, he told players there were “10 to 12 teams that were good enough to win.”

But such parity did not always exist. Totino-Grace won seven state titles in the second-largest class since 2003, becoming what Esch called “the Eden Prairie or Wayzata of our class.”

“We’ve added good teams to the mix, but we’re still tight enough enrollment-wise where it makes it interesting,” Esch said.

Said Minneapolis Washburn coach Giovan Jenkins: “The minute Totino-Grace moved out, it opened up the pecking order for the rest of us. I like having an opportunity to bump heads with an opponent who doesn’t completely dominate.”

Washburn plays host to Apple Valley and is looking for its first state tournament appearance since 2007. Millers’ senior running back Jeff Jones, the state’s highest-profile recruit, committed to the Gophers before reopening the process.

Owatonna defensive end Andrew Stelter, who also verbally committed to the Gophers, leads the undefeated Huskies in their bid for a second consecutive appearance in the title game. They lost to Totino-Grace last season.

Additional standouts in Class 5A include Andover quarterback Connor Wilkie and Spring Lake Park linebacker Ejodamen Ejiya. Their teams play Friday.

“We’ve got kids in this class who [now] play on Saturdays,” Owatonna coach Jeff Williams said, noting Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson who played at Mankato West.

Responding to critics who see more classes as an excuse to award more trophies, 5A coaches said an additional class expands the high school football footprint.

Said Williams: “Hopefully last year we created an identity for our class. The St. Thomas Academy-Owatonna [state semifinal] game was one for the ages. Class 6A isn’t where the only good football is being played.”

“From a fan perspective, 5A offers good football, tight games and fewer blowouts,” Esch said. “And there are so many good teams who can win if they string [wins] together at the right time. All those elements create excitement.”

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574

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