Milaca football team opens at Becker

Becker, a longtime football powerhouse in the Wright County Conference, and more recently the Mississippi 8 Conference, makes its debut in the recently-formed Granite Ridge Conference tonight (Thursday) at 7 at Eppard Field.

The Bulldogs’ opponent will be Milaca.

“How’s that for a tough opener?” said Milaca Coach Randy Johnson Monday. “Becker has a great tradition and its teams are very strong nearly every season.

“They’re one of the favorites, maybe the big favorite, in the Granite Ridge this season. But, we’re looking forward to the challenge. We want to get our season off to a good start.

“The Granite Ridge is loaded with good teams and every team will face some big challenges this season.”

“We’re looking forward to the challenge of competing in a new conference,” said Dwight Lundeen, who’s beginning his 43rd season as Bulldogs head coach. “And, we’re looking forward to playing Milaca again.

“Milaca has a solid program and will come here ready to play. We want to get our season off to a good start, and so does Milaca. The first game of the season is always special for fans, players and coaches.”

This opener could be even more special for Lundeen and Becker. Lundeen has coached the Bulldogs to 299 victories, which ranks fourth among Minnesota high school football coaches.

“Getting number 300 would be nice, not just for me but for our program and our fans,” said Lundeen. “We thought it might happen last season but it didn’t.

“And, playing well against Milaca is our top goal. If we get a victory that’s great.”

The Bulldogs were 6-4 last season, 3-3 in the Mississippi 8. Becker was 9-2 in 2010.

Lundeen feels his team should have plenty of offensive punch this season. The defense is a question mark heading into the opener.

“We have some very skilled players on offense,” he said. “We feel we’ll be able to move the football and score points.

“Holding our opponents down may be another matter. Our secondary and linebackers are solid but the line is inexperienced.”

Junior quarterback Tommy Benson, grandson of legendary St. John’s University Coach John Gagliardi, passed for over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Senior Joel Hopkins, who caught 58 passes for 827 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, heads a talented group of wide receivers.

Those two are among six offensive and five defensive starters returning.

Lundeen said his team looked “decent” in scrimmages Saturday against St. Cloud Tech, Bloomington Kennedy and Cambridge-Isanti.

Likewise, Johnson felt his team did some positive things in a scrimmage Saturday at St. Cloud Apollo that included Apollo, Little Falls and South St. Paul.

“We were able to move the ball on the ground and in the air,” said Johnson, whose team was 2-7 last season. “Defensively, we handled adjustments to the offenses we faced very quickly.

“Our young players gained some valuable experience against live competition. A negative was that we thought our offensive line would be a little bit more dominant in certain situations.

“This group of players has worked extremely hard to come together as a team. We’ve had a great two weeks of practice, with excellent weather. We feel we’re ready for the season to start.”

The last meeting between Milaca and Becker was in the 2005 section playoffs, with the Bulldogs scoring a 36-7 victory.

Milaca’s tentative starting lineup on offense will have Mason Hoskins and Matt VanSomeren at wide receivers, Mitch Hanenburg and Jorgen Erickson at running backs, Jonah Gahm at fullback, Brian Kiel at quarterback, Levi Hoskins at center, Josh Otten and Colton Sailor at the guard positions and Dylan Quaintance and Cory Windhauser at the tackle spots.

Defensively, it will be Brandon Merten at nose tackle, Jake Walters and Quaintance at defensive ends, Hanenburg and Ian Carpenter at outside linebacker, Matt Cluraghty, Otten and Erickson at inside linebacker posts and Kiel, Gahm and Mike Warren in the secondary.

Milaca travels to defending GRC champion Zimmerman Friday, Sept. 7.