Wabasso faces another major test in St. Mary’s

Through three weeks of the 2016 high school football season, I’ve gotten the impression that the New Ulm area might not have any teams make state this year.

New Ulm Cathedral and Minnesota Valley Lutheran have both hit snags so far, Springfield is having a major down year with a couple of its prolific athletes focusing on other ventures, Nicollet is still rebuilding and Madelia is a little less likely to return to state at the 9-man level.

Wabasso, on the other hand, has always stood out to me and if it did not have to play in the always-grueling Section 5A, it would probably be primed for a trip to state.

It’s no secret that Wabasso has always had a strong football tradition. But this year, No. 6-ranked Wabasso is the clear frontrunner in the Southwest District, East Subdistrict after finishing second behind Cathedral last season. A subdistrict title would be the first regular-season title for Wabasso since 2008, when it won the Southern Minnesota Conference.

The Rabbits feature a core of experienced players who got varsity experience as underclassmen due to thin numbers in the upper classes the past two years. This bodes well for them, especially when you look at teams like Cathedral and Springfield and the setbacks they have had with inexperienced players.

“It was just a matter of them being ready – it’s a whole different ballgame going up to varsity,” Wabasso coach Joe Kemp said. “They had to play when they were young and I think that experience is paying off now.”

Senior running back Mitchell Fulton has been the Rabbits’ biggest weapon so far, rushing for 441 yards on 32 carries in three games – including a 228-yard performance against MVL in Week 2.

“We’ve expanded what we do because our kids are ready for it now,” Kemp said. “Mitchell definitely has been carrying the load. He went to quarterback [in the Wildcat formation] in Week 1 and did some outstanding running there. But he’s really taken a leadership role and gotten bigger physically.”

Senior Jared Welch has also had an impact in moving from offensive line to tight end as the Rabbits’ do-it-all player. Cooper and Colton Taylor have also had numerous big plays on both sides of the ball.

One of the biggest reasons why I think Wabasso is poised for something special this season is, in fact, its 22-17 loss to Minneota in Week 1.

Minneota, which has not lost since the 2013 Class AA state title game when it was paired with Lincoln Hendricks-Ivanhoe, edged out Wabasso on a bizarre fumble recovery that gave it first-and-goal at the opposing 3-yard line in the fourth quarter.

“We were ahead by three and had the ball on their 25… but it was just a fluke play,” Kemp said. “Their guy recovered the fumble and got it to our 3 and that’s how they scored. Before that fumble, I think they had run seven or eight plays the entire second half.

“We were in control of the game at that point and it was just a fluke.”

Since that slim win against Wabasso, Minneota has pounded Ortonville 59-16 and previously state-ranked Adrian 61-0. This makes Wabasso’s five-point loss all the more impressive considering that Minneota is still the favorite to build upon its current 30-game winning streak.

Since that loss, Wabasso has routed MVL 48-14 and Cedar Mountain/Comfrey 64-13.

But this week, Wabasso faces the toughest team it will probably play until playoff time: Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s.

In its final season in Class A football, coach Brent Kucera has his St. Mary’s football team set up to make a run in the East Subdistrict. St. Mary’s (2-1) has big lines on both sides of the ball and skill position players who can make big plays to complement senior quarterback Nick Strate.

But even still, Wabasso is the favorite in this game.

“Wabasso is a smash-mouth football team,” St. Mary’s senior running back Nate Schroepfer said after his team’s 21-6 win against Sleepy Eye last Friday. “They’re going to try to run the ball right down your throat. This whole week in practice, we’ve got to come ready to go.”

But don’t take St. Mary’s lightly. If Wabasso has a few slipups in the first half and falls behind by a couple scores, I could see St. Mary’s actually coming away with a win here.

“Brent Kucera is going to have them really prepared,” Kemp said. “They’re a very fundamental team and they’re going to be quick and they’re going to be big up front. The control of the line of scrimmage is going to be probably where the game is won on Friday night.”

With the way this season has shaped up, the game between Wabasso and St. Mary’s will most likely decide the East Subdistrict title and will be one that could possibly be talked about for years to come.

“We’ve got to be tough next Friday night because that’s how you’re going to beat them,” Schroepfer said. “You’ve got to be stronger than them.”