FARGO — Fargo Shanley ended last season atop North Dakota Class 2A football. The Deacons celebrated a state title, but with 15 starters from that team returning, last season their message to the rest of the state was that they were ready for Class 3A.
"For us, the biggest thing was letting our kids know that they belong," Shanley coach Troy Mattern said. "We knew, as a program, winning double-A helped to validate we belong in triple-A. It really prepared our kids and whole network that we're ready to take the next step into triple-A."
Shanley played in Class 2A since 2009. After going 11-0 last fall, the Deacons finished 100-16 in 10 seasons with four state titles in Class 2A. They made it to at least the state semifinals every season.
"It's excitement, the opportunity to play with our rivals we do in every other sport," Mattern said. "Our kids grew up playing these kids. We have a lot of competitors on our team and they want to compete at the highest level. They've been preparing for this."
The Deacons got their wish. They are in Class 3A.
"I think the scrimmage against West Fargo and Sheyenne showed that we are capable of playing triple-A football," Mattern said. "Now, it becomes a mindset. We're never going to win a depth battle, so we have to condition our kids to play multiple positions."
There will be a new quarterback for the Deacons, as junior Cooper Mattern will take over. Being Troy's son, Cooper has been around the game essentially since birth, even serving as the ball boy when Troy was coaching Fargo South.
"We'll be able to be a lot more balanced with him," Troy Mattern said. "We were so focused on the run before, where he's a true passer and he understands defenses. From that respect, he's going to be a true quarterback, not just a running back at the quarterback position."
The quarterback will have plenty of familiar faces to choose from, as Shanley returns all of its wide receivers except one. Seniors Talon Hoffer and transfer Quincy Smith, along with juniors Braden DeKeyser, Henry Collins, Carter Kochmann and Carson Dean, will give the offense plenty of receiving options.
"They're all athletic and interchangeable, so we'll be moving them around," Mattern said.
Dean will be the primary running back and Shanley returns it's entire offensive line. Led by 6-foot-1, 240-pound center Joe Kava, the offensive line returns a couple of 285-pounders at tackle in junior Simon Bowden, who is returning from an ACL injury, and junior Braeden Bloch. Seniors Leo Hanson and Luke Beiswenger return at the guard position.
So perhaps Shanley won't stray away from that run-heavy offense.
"It's a good problem to have," Mattern said.
Kava, Bloch and Beiswenger will lead the defensive line as well. Hoffer is back at safety and the Deacons return both inside linebackers.
Speaking of being back, Mattern will coach against South on Sept. 13 for the first time since he left the Bruins to take the Shanley job in January of 2017. He had coached at South since 2010, posting a 52-21 record and winning Class 3A state titles in 2010 and 2013.
"It'll be fun," Mattern said. "It's the first (Eastern Dakota Conference) game, so it's a big one. It's their homecoming and it's kind of like a homecoming for my staff and I. There's a lot of things to be excited about it, but most importantly it's an EDC football game."
Aug. 30: at Bismarck St. Mary's, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 6: vs. Jamestown, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13: at Fargo South, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 20: at Grand Forks Central, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27: vs. Fargo North, 6 p.m.
Oct. 4: vs. West Fargo Sheyenne, 7 p.m.
Oct. 10: at Grand Forks Red River, 7 p.m.
Oct. 16: at West Fargo, 7 p.m.
Oct. 25: vs. Fargo Davies, 7 p.m.