Wednesday, November 23, 2011
A guide to Minnesota's football title games
By By Christopher Parish
Another exciting season is just about in the books, and now it's time for the state championship games. We'll give you our preps pick'em previews later this week, but let's break down the matchups and learn about the players in the championship games.
Class AAAAA: Wayzata (12-0) vs. Eden Prairie (11-1)
And here we are again. It's been the best rivalry in the state over the last two seasons. It's a rematch of last year's state title game. It's a rematch of the excellent regular season matchup from earlier this year. Every time we think Wayzata might have finally met its match, the Trojans have stepped up in a big way. Consider the state semifinal matchup against a very good Cretin-Derham Hall team; we thought it would be close. The 42-0 shellacking wasn't close at all. The only team to stay close to Wayzata? Eden Prairie, which fell in a 9-0 loss earlier this season. And it's been the defense for Wayzata that has been so tough to solve, but it's the offense that has come into its own this season. Senior QB Nick Martin and senior WR Jeff Borchardt were stellar in the semifinal game and will be tough to defend in the title game as well.
Eden Prairie is not a team to be taken lightly though. It's another stellar defense (just 101 points allowed all year) and the Eagles toppled Totino-Grace in the state semifinals to advance to the finals. Each team has a stellar defense and a strong offense. Each team won by 42 points in the state semifinals. These two teams are the class of the state, and this match seems predestined.
Class AAAA: Bemidji (12-0) vs. Rocori (11-1)
Reigning champ Mankato West finally fell, and in its place is a Bemidji team that has been impressive all season long. Senior quarterback Mitchell Hendricks has been outstanding for the Lumberjacks this season, throwing for 1,725 yards and 20 touchdowns. His top target is senior Carey Woods, who has accounted for 16 of those end zone trips this season.
Rocori, meanwhile, won a thrilling game against Hill-Murray, 37-35, to advance to the Class AAAA title game. Since a season-opening loss to Brainerd, the Spartans have been as close to perfect as could be this season. Mac Mueller and Nate Meyer have been as good as can be for the Rocori offense this season (Mueller scored three touchdowns in the state semifinals) and they'll need to be equally as good to keep pace with Bemidji this weekend.
Class AAA: Fairmont (12-1) vs. St. Croix Lutheran (13-0)
An opportunistic defense helped Fairmont overcome a less than ideal offensive display and win its state semifinal game over Annandale. The defense, led by senior DL Justin Barnes, scored two touchdowns in the game. Quarterback Ben Kain has also been an important player for the Cardinals. But the team won't be able to play another mistake-laden game on offense against an unbeaten St. Croix Lutheran squad.
The Crusaders have been an offensive juggernaut all season, averaging 47.5 points per contest. The team has scored 50 or more points seven times this season, most recently in the state semifinal against Providence Academy (a 58-29 victory). You won't win a shootout against St. Croix Lutheran, you can only hope to slow them down.
Class AA: Moose Lake/Willow River (13-0) vs. Caledonia (12-1)
For the fourth time in five seasons, Caledonia has made the state title game. The team has won three state titles in that span. And yet, the Warriors might feel like an underdog against unbeaten Moose Lake/Willow River. The Rebels have averaged 51.7 points per game this season, outscoring opponents by a combined total of 499 points in the process. Eight times the Rebels scored 50 or more points this season, and although the team's point total has been slowed in recent weeks (scoring 26 and 35 in the last two playoff games) it's still a team that is a force to be reckoned with.
Caledonia's defense has plenty of playmakers who can shut down the Rebels, though. Seniors Zach Kasen and Houston Halverson were brilliant in the state semifinals — a 37-0 win over Warroad — and are excellent at wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. They'll need to be at their best to slow down Moose Lake/Willow River.
Class A: Mahnomen (13-0) vs. Dawson-Boyd (13-0)
Two unbeatens square off to settle the score in Class A this weekend. Dawson-Boyd got seven touchdowns (three rushing and four passing) from sophomore QB Joey Lee, in the state semifinal. But this isn't a team that does a ton of work through the air; rather, it's two running backs, Esten Weber and Justin Lee, who have done the bulk of the work offensively for the unbeaten Indians. That's what makes this team tough to prepare for. When you shut down the runners, the quarterback can make enough plays to provide a big victory.
But if any team is up the for the challenge, it's Mahnomen. It's a team that loves to get things done on the ground, using the strength of its impressive offensive line to plug forward and beat its opponents physically. It has two 1,000-yard rushers — senior RB Avery Fairbanks and junior QB Jake Pavek — and the defense has done the rest. It's a defense that has allowed only 74 points this season and allowed double digits in points only twice.