There is considerable experience, but also more youth than maturity. There are more linemen with more size and more strength than the coaches can recall. Skill position players possess height and speed. There is more depth and therefore more competition for playing time than usual, especially among linemen. Twelve of 17 letter winners return, which includes eight of last year’s top 12 defenders and seven of the top 12 offensive contributors, But there are four times as many freshmen (12) as there are seniors (3). With seven juniors and six sophomores, about two thirds (18) of the 28-man squad are sophomores and freshmen.
The 2020 Grove guys went 5-3 (4-2 sub-district), an 11th consecutive winning record, but graduation claimed all four all-district performers, including the Lion MVP and the three leading tacklers along with the leading passer, receiver and rusher.
One-time college quarterback and current head coach Kody Moore, in each of his seven seasons as offensive coordinator, has mentored a prolific-passer and an accomplished crew of receivers. For the third straight season, there will be a new quarterback piloting Spring Grove’s wide-open, shotgun offense. But for the first time in four years, the starting quarterback will not be a senior. Sophomore Elijah Solum (6-1, 190) is the heir apparent after lettering on defense last year. But he has all the tossing tools, having passed for an average of 183 yards and two touchdowns per game while quarterbacking the B-team as an eighth grader against sophomore and freshman opponents. In last Saturday’s scrimmage versus Grand Meadow, he completed 8 of 12 passes, including a perfectly-placed TD completion to a leaping Tysen Grinde in the back of the end zone.
Grinde (6-2, 170), who is also the back-up quarterback, is one of an athletic and mostly tall contingent of receivers,
Grinde was named by the summer camp coaches as the top skill player that week in South Dakota. He received Honorable Mention on the All-District team after logging the Lions’ second-leading receiving yardage (219 yards, 14 catches, 4 TDs).
Six different receivers caught passes during Saturday’s short scrimmage. In the usual four-receiver formation, there are four targets between 6-foot-2 and 6-4 in height. Joining Grinde is senior Reid Bjerke (6-2, 175), who caught 16 passes for 204 yards and three touchdowns last year. Sophomore Jaxon Strinmoen (6-3, 165), who was last year’s B-team quarterback, should be another starting wide receiver. The leading tight end candidate is senior Carson Gerard (6-4, 195), who has been impressive despite not having played football since grade school. But do not overlook junior letter winner Caleb Griffin (5-10, 160), who led the B-team in scoring, rushing, receiving yardage, punt returning and kick returning. Adding depth is promising freshman Bryce Berns (5-10, 130).
Honorable Mention All-District junior Hunter Holland (5-9, 165), who shared running back duty last year, will be the premier ball-carrier this fall. The track standout was second last year in carries (51), yardage (316) and touchdowns (4). He also caught 10 passes for 132 yards and one touchdown. Adding in kick and punt returns, Holland had a team-high 775 all-purpose running yards. Expect Bjerke to be the back-up ball carrier.
Having 14 linemen is the first such Lion luxury in the 9-man era. With 10 weighing more than 200 pounds, there will be more size and strength, a departure from the Lions’ usual “lean and mobile” look up front. But according to line coach Kaare Sanness, the boys ”move amazing well for their youth and size.” He also noted there is a lot of preseason competition for playing time with not much difference between those linemen who may earn starting positions and their backups. Returning regulars are having to battle to merit starting nods.
Junior Ty Cleven (5-11, 220) was the starting offensive center last year, and senior Camron Kraus (6-1, 180) started at guard. Graduation claimed the other starting guard and tight end. Junior letter winner Logan Brumm (6-0, 180) is versatile enough to play either position. Gerard should be a capable blocker and a quality receiver at tight end. Sophomore letter winner Ethan Crouch (6-4, 210) is a strong candidate at guard along with junior letter winner Cooper Olson (6-2, 275) plus three promising freshmen – Emmet Engeldinger (5-11, 220), Brandon Jahnke (5-10, 240) andShawn Crouch (6-3, 260), the latter being the likely back-up center. Also in the mix is junior letter winner Noah Blackburn (6-1, 250), who exhibits exceptional potential on defense. Adding further depth are sophomores Austin Conway (6-0, 220) and Josh Newgaard (6-4, 260) plus freshmen Nate Crouch (6-3, 150) and Garret Waldenberger (5-9, 220).
On defense, Cleven, Brumm, Kraus and Ethan Crouch saw significant action last year, but Blackburn, Gerard and Engeldinger could also earn starting defensive assignments. In the past, Spring Grove has most often used three linemen with three linebackers. But this year, with more depth in the line than at linebacker, the Lions will more often employ a four-lineman, two-linebacker formation.
There is not as much defensive depth behind the line, but two of the top four linebackers return. Holland led the Lions in sacks and tackles for loss while ranking second in unassisted tackles. Solum led the team in fumbles forced and had two of the Lions’ eight interceptions. Bjerke will move from last year’s cornerback duty to linebacker. Sophomore letter winner Jacob Olerud (5-11, 165) is another possibility as is freshman Zach Brumm (6-0, 155).
With Grinde moving back to safety, both cornerback posts have been vacated. Strinmoen and Griffin are leading candidates along with Berns and sophomore Braedon Solie (5-5, 125).
Graduation claimed the punter and placekicker (extra points, field goals), but Holland will continue to kick off and be one of the two kick return specialists, likely joined by Grinde who should also return punts this year. Grinde, Holland and Griffin are candidates to punt and place kick.
WINNING or LOSING
All of last year’s three losses were blowouts (versus LeRoy-Ostrander, section champion Lanesboro and regular-season champion Grand Meadow). Spring Grove’s 11th straight winning record (5-3, 4-2 district) was due to the Lions winning all four of the really close games. In last season’s five wins, Spring Grove led only once at halftime. There were not many points between that 5-3 mark and what could have been a 1-7 record. The difference between winning and losing records often comes down to winning the close ones. Success in those close encounters could pay dividends as this year’s veterans should have gained some late-game confidence with all of those game-saving heroics.
The most experienced group is the coaching. staff, all of which returns. Moore, who was an assistant for six seasons, is back for his second year as head coach. He is again assisted by former Lion players Kaare Sanness, Don Hagen, Aric Elton and junior high coach Brian Anderson.
DISTRICT and SECTION
There are no conferences to join in football. The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) places all teams into districts (and sub-districts) for the regular season and then like the other sports, into sections for postseason play leading to the state championship. After a COVID-delayed start last season, there was an abbreviated section tournament before the pandemic canceled the state tourney.
Spring Grove is one of nine teams in the East Sub-district of the 9-man South District; all nine are also members of the Southeast Conference in other sports. During the 2021 eight-game regular season, Spring Grove is the only member who will face all of the other eight. Each of those other eight will play seven East rivals plus one crossover contest against a West Sub-district squad. Due to a shortage of Friday night officials, there will be a few Saturday games, including Spring Grove hosting Lyle/Pacelli in week two (Sept. 11, 5 p.m.).
After the upcoming regular-season, sub-district race, the Section One 9-Man Tournament will include eight of the nine sub-district teams – all except Kingsland, which must compete in the 11-man playoffs. The regular season championship race will be impacted quickly as the first week features two games that includes four of the most highly-regarded teams. It will be a rematch of last year’s section title game when Grand Meadow visits Lanesboro. Meanwhile on that same Sept. 3 opening night, LeRoy-Ostrander hosts Southland. The Burros begin with a daunting gauntlet with their first three games against Grand Meadow, Southland and L-O.
One goal in Spring Grove is to compete ably with that foursome. The Lions take on the Superlarks, Rebels and Cardinals in succession in weeks four, five and six. Spring Grove closes the regular season with a week-eight trip to Lanesboro. The Lions open at Houston, a team they defeated 20-14 in last year’s playoffs. But the Grove guys did not lead until the final minute. It should be a tough task again, since the Hurricanes return five starters, including All-District quarterback Isaac Heyer. Spring Grove has won the last 15 games against Houston and now leads the series (since 1949) 42-30-2.
In last year’s pandemic-shortened sub-district race, the Lions (5-3, 4-2 East) finished third behind Grand Meadow and Lanesboro but ahead of L-O, Southland, Houston, Mabel-Canton, Kingsland and Lyle/Pacelli. The season ended with a resounding 42-16 section loss at L-O. Spring Grove and Lyle/Pacelli are the only two sub-district teams that do not bring back an all-league player.
Although the season is starting on time this year, pandemic quarantines could again be a factor. Last fall, nearly half (four) of the nine teams were not able to play all six games of an already abbreviated schedule.
Lions the Last 7 Seasons (SG Football)
2020…….5-3 (4-2 dist. 3rd of 9)
2019……7-3 (5-2 dist. 3rd of 9)
2018*….14-0 (7-0 dist. 1st of 8)
2017*….14-0 (7-0 dist. 1st of 8)
2016…….9-2 (7-1 dist., 2nd of 10)
2015…….9-2 (7-1 dist., 2nd of 10)
2014…….9-2 (7-1 SEC, 2nd of 9)
Total… 67-12 (44-7 league)
…. .848 (.863)
* state champion, section champ
Spring Grove football 2021
7:00 p.m. kickoff unless noted (series records go back to 1949)
Fri. Sept. 3 at Houston (SG won last year 33-16 and 20-14; Lions lead series 42-30-2)
Sat. Sept. 11 Lyle/Pacelli 5 p.m. (SG won last year 36-22; Lions have won last 14, lead series 17-2)
Fri. Sept. 17 at Mabel-Canton (SG won last year 28-24; Lions have won last 16, lead series 36-25)
Fri. Sept. 24 Grand Meadow (GM has won the last three; GM leads series 34-10)
Fri. Oct. 1 Southland (have not played in 20 years; Rebels lead series 10-2)
Fri. Oct. 8 at LeRoy-Ostrander (L-O won last year 42-16; Cardinals lead series 14-13)
Fr. Oct. 15 Kingsland (SG won last year 34-8; Lions lead series 2-0)
Wed. Oct. 20 at Lanesboro (Burros won last year 36-14; Lions lead series 27-22-3)
B-team football (6 p.m. kickoffs)
Tues. Sept. 7 Mabel-Canton
Mon. Sept. 13 at Kingsland
Mon. Sept. 20 Mabel-Canton
Mon. Sept. 27 at Houston
Mon. Oct. 4 at Grand Meadow
Mon. Oct. 11 Lanesboro
Junior high football (4:30 p.m. kickoffs)
Tues. Sept. 7 LeRoy-Ostrander
Mon. Sept. 13 at Kingsland
Mon. Sept. 20 Mabel-Canton
Mon. Sept. 27 at Houston
Mon. Oct. 11 Lanesboro
Mon. Oct. 18 at Southland