There will not be a state tournament for high school football teams this fall, but the athletes at Luverne and Pipestone have plenty to play for.

As usual.

“We always have one championship game every year and that’s Pipestone,” said Luverne coach Todd Oye, who grew up between the two towns and is a LHS graduate. “Both schools treat it that way. So we’ve got that to look forward to.”

Even in this odd pandemic season, the “Battle Axe” clash, a trophy game between Luverne and Pipestone Area that dates back to 1957, provides a sense of tradition and normalcy. The Cardinals and Arrows square off on Oct. 9 to highlight the area’s first scheduled games of this pandemic-affected prep football campaign.

Both programs have been consistent winners. Pipestone, Section 3AA champions a year ago, finished 7-4 during a 2019 season that included a 13-12 loss to Luverne.

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The Cardinals, who finished 7-3 in Section 3AAA last fall, are especially optimistic these days.

“We return a lot,” said Oye.

Quarterback Bailey Cowell, running back/defensive back LaShad Smith and lineman Zach Ahrendt are the top players back for Oye. Smith, a 170-pound senior blessed with excellent quickness, earned Globe All-Area honors last fall and Ahrendt, a 6-3, 277-pounder, recently committed to the football program at Southwest Minnesota State University.

“We have a good class of juniors and seniors,” Oye said. “We haven’t had seniors in double-digit numbers the last few years and this year we have 32 players total between the junior and senior classes. It’s a class that has done pretty well at the lower levels all the way through in sports, especially football.”

Pipestone, coached by Clay Anderson, is rebuilding a bit after graduation losses that included quarterback J.T. Tinklenberg, and Globe All-Area picks Jason Steenstra and Eric Lange. Receiver Dawson Schelhaas caught a touchdown pass in the Arrows’ AA quarterfinal loss to Caledonia, and is an exceptional athlete.

JACKSON COUNTY CENTRAL finished two victories short of a Class AAA state championship last fall, and more than 20 fine seniors graduated from that 11-1 Huskies team.

Among the losses was superstar quarterback Rudy Voss, a two-time Globe All-Area and All-State selection who passed for 4,537 yards and 49 touchdowns at JCC before joining the exceptional NCAA Division I FCS program at South Dakota State.

JCC standouts Sam Dunker, Matt Stubbe, Cole Kapplinger, Keldon Bennett and Bradley Buhl Jr. also earned Globe All-Area honors and have now graduated.

To be sure, the Huskies are rebuilding.

“Our depth is paper thin,” JCC coach Tom Schuller said. “To get our best players on the field we have had to move some players to positions they haven’t played before.”

Junior Levi Lindsey is expected to step in at quarterback. He started last season at linebacker. Damian Meyer-Andre is a returning starter at receiver and Elijah Meium-Bratrud is a swift running back who returns. Junior Trace Michelson anchors the line at offensive tackle.

“We have some good players,” Schuller said. “We know it will take some time to gain experience, but we expect to be competitive.”

THE MURRAY COUNTY CENTRAL Rebels hope to make some noise in Section 3A thanks to several key returning players.

Among them are Globe All-Area picks Dylan Johnson and Rylan Behnke. Quarterback Blake Schmitz, a 6-3, 190-pounder, and rugged Christian Kuball are also talented performers. The 180-pound Behnke is a tough center and middle linebacker.

“We’re excited to see what we can do,” said MCC coach Patrick Freeman, whose squad was 5-4 last fall. “With our experience, our determination and our leadership within our senior group, our expectations are high.”

Johnson rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last year and has put on about 20 pounds of muscle. Schmitz is a talented all-around athlete who is blessed with both speed and a strong arm.

Other key players back for the Rebels include Dawson Tutt, Kevin Garcia, Colton Mitchell and Chant Mitchell.

“There’s such good football down here in southwest Minnesota,” Freeman said. “We know each week will be a battle.”

ADRIAN/ELLSWORTH is another consistent contender in 3A. The Dragons of coach Randy Schettler will miss graduated standouts Lane Luettel and Brandon Schnoor.

The Dragons also had injury issues a year ago en route to a 4-5 record. The good news is that several of those players are healthy now and should provide significant help. Among them are senior quarterback Marshall Wagner, senior lineman Nicholas Sjogren and junior lineman Dawson Krahling.

Krahling, a 195-pounder, figures to share ball-carrying duties with senior Preston Nelson and sophomore Quentin Wolf.

Also returning to the Dragon lineup are 240-pound senior lineman Lucas Nelson and 220-pound sophomore Brandon Boltjes.

THIS PART OF the state is always well-represented in the Nine-Man state rankings. Certainly that was the case a year ago as Mountain Lake Area won the state championship and Hills-Beaver Creek played for a section title.

This year it might be the Patriots’ turn.

“We’ve got a good veteran team coming back,” said H-BC coach Rex Metzger. “We’ve got guys who have been playing for quite a few years and that always makes things easier.”

The Patriots are led by quarterback Gavin Wysong and running back Tyson Bork.

Bork, an All-Area pick last fall when he gained 1,700 yards rushing and scored 24 touchdowns, features both speed and power.

The same is true of Wysong, who rushed for 1,600 yards and 26 touchdowns.

“They’re both extremely athletic,” Metzger said. “They’re also both extremely strong and fast. Good players.

“We’ve also got some senior linemen coming back, with Tory Knobloch, Zander Wysong and Chase Bosch.”

The Pats’ only losses last fall came to MLA’s Wolverines by scores of 40-20 and 28-6, the latter in a section championship.

“It’s turned into a pretty good rivalry and they’ve had our number the last few years,” Metzger said.

MLA suffered severe graduation losses, star quarterback Abraham Stoesz among them.

Hills-Beaver Creek, 14-0 last fall, is slated to play MLA on Nov. 12 in Hills.

“That’s definitely going to be a game that’s circled on our calendar,” Metzger said. “They’ve always got a good group of guys.”

Other standout players in the Nine-Man ranks include Edgerton fullback Nolan Buckridge and tight end Mason Gilbertson, Westbrook quarterback Ethan Mischke, and Heron Lake-Okabena/Fulda quarterback Eli Fest and linebacker/running back Matt Madsen.

Both Buckridge and Madsen were All-Area picks a year ago.

“There are some real good athletes in our area this fall,” Metzger said.