We’ve reached the final stop on our four-day tour around the MIAC, looking at how each of the teams in the conference may stack up this season.
The whole trip leads up to Wednesday, when the 2012 St. John’s preview package runs online and in the print version of the newspaper.
But today, we journey to Arden Hills and St. Paul for looks at perennial conference powers Bethel and St. Thomas
And away we go:
2011 record: 6-2 MIAC (tied for 2nd place), 8-2 overall
Returning starters: Offense – 8; Defense – 7
Prognosis: The Royals graduated a four-year starter at quarterback in Josh Aakre, who threw for 1,363 yards and 16 touchdowns while rushing for 841 yards and 14 touchdowns. That leaves big shoes to fill. But head coach Steve Johnson said the team feels good about sophomore Erik Peterson, an Orono graduate, who is likely to inherit the job.
He will be blessed with what could be one of the league’s most talented backfield tandems in junior Jesse Phenow, who rushed for 895 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011, and Brandon Marquardt, who transferred from Division II Minnesota State-Mankato prior to last season and rushed for 611 yards and five touchdowns despite being slowed by injury.
Seniors Jay Hilbrands and Hans Duininck are back at wide receiver. And two starters are back on what is always a formidable offensive line. They are senior center Josh Wolfe, a preseason All-American, and senior guard Jared Penz, an All-MIAC second-team pick. At tight end, senior Kyle Ulstad is back. But an intriguing name could be junior Jeff Schmidt, a 6-6, 280-plus pounder who switches to tight end from offensive tackle.
Defensively, a pair of All-MIAC first-team picks return at linebacker in junior Seth Mathis and senior Erik Smith. All-MIAC second-team pick Brett Skoog, a senior, is also back to augment a talented group. Three of four starters are back on the defensive line, including junior defensive end Luke Buttenhoff. Just one starter is back in the secondary. He is junior safety J.D. Mehlhorn.
“We feel like we’re in the mix,” said Johnson, whose team was ranked No. 17 in the D3football.com Division III preseason top 25. “Obviously, finding a replacement for Aakre will be a big part of how successful we’ll be. But we feel like we have the talent to be in the mix.”
2011 record: 8-0 MIAC (1st place), 13-1 overall (reached Division III semifinals)
Returning starters: Offense – 7; Defense – 8
Prognosis: It came as no surprise to anyone when the Tommies were the preseason pick to win a third-straight MIAC title in the league’s preseason coaching poll.
Yes, head coach Glenn Caruso’s team lost some key pieces. That starts with MIAC player of the year Fritz Waldvogel at wide receiver, starting quarterback Dakota Tracy and running back Colin Tobin, who rushed for 1,66 yards and 22 touchdowns. Standout linebackers Willy Baregi and Tony Danna graduated on the defensive side of the ball as well.
But St. Thomas still retains a great deal of talent. It starts up front on offense where All-American senior center Curtis Hames anchors an offensive line that returns three starters from a year ago. Juniors Dan Noehring and Kyle Whitley are both experienced at wide receiver and could share the production Waldvogel once assumed. Both players had over 360 receiving yards a year ago.
Sophomore Matt O’Connell was Tracy’s top backup as a freshman and he stands poised to assume the starting job this season. He set a Wisconsin state record for total offense during his prep career.
“Matt made us very comfortable, not just with the way he looked last spring (in spring workouts), but from the way he handled himself as an 18-year-old freshman taking the No. 2 quarterback job last season,” Caruso said. “He was able to get a lot of playing time and that experience will benefit him.”
Replacing Tobin could be a pair of talented sophomores in Aaron Terrell-Byrd and Ryan Toney. Terrell-Byrd rushed for 391 yards and five touchdowns last season. Toney rushed for 294 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensively, despite its losses, the linebacking corps still looks very strong. Juniors Harry Pitera and Tremayne Williams, senior Paul Carlson and fifth-year senior Mike Valesano all have plenty of experience under their belts. PItera had 10 tackles for a loss last season. Williams had 10.5.
All four starters return in the secondary, plus another player who started the year before, but missed all last year due to injury. Senior cornerbacks Chinni Oji and Jack Gavin and senior safeties Tyler Erstad and Josh Carey are all back. So is the now-healthy Ryan Dietz.
Only one starter is back up front, though, in junior defensive end Riley Dombeck. But sophomore nose guard Derek Vonnahme, a transfer from Division II Northern State, and sophomore defensive end Sam Pokonowski, a transfer from Division I-AA North Dakota, could help fill the void for a team that was ranked No. 8 in the D3football.com Division III preseason Top 25.