It's much too early to start talking championships, but St. Croix Lutheran -- based on its 36-14 victory at Providence Academy on Friday -- appears dead-set on defending its Class 3A championship into November.
"We know we're a target for other teams," said Crusaders' running back Jackson Goplen. "This is a new year, but we still have to remember how we got there."
The opening game for both teams provided an intriguing rematch of the 2011 Class 3A seminfinals, when they combined for 59 first-quarter points. St. Croix Lutheran's defense stiffened after that and shut out Providence for the rest of the game in that 58-29 victory.
What fans saw Friday was more of the latter three stanzas from last season. St. Croix Lutheran, behind the stellar Goplen, overcame numerous penalties to take a 22-0 halftime lead.
Goplen scored on a 75-yard touchdown run on the game's initial drive. He took a pitch from quarterback Lincoln Hochmuth, stepped out of one tackle, sidestepped another and outraced the Providence defender to the end zone.
"That was a huge part of the game," said Crusaders coach Carl Lemke. "That long-distance run set a nice tone."
The Crusaders went up 16-0 early in the second quarter on a 56-yard pass from Hockmuth to Cody Sticha.
In the meantime, the St. Croix Lutheran defense was busy shutting down the Providence offense. The Crusaders linebackers were frequently stuffing the holes. The Providence receivers provided little help, dropping multiple passes that stifled promising drives.
The Lions finally found a groove in the fourth quarter, using their superior size to develop a passing game. Quarterback Jackson Canfield threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull within 28-14.
But the defending champion Crusaders responded as running back Charlie Altman ran 64 yards for a score on their first play from scrimmage.
"It's all about the system," Goplen said. "We know that if we just do our jobs, we're one step or one pass away from scoring a touchdown."