Prep football: Intriguing, odd matchups highlight first round
WORTHINGTON — High school football playoffs are like a box of chocolates. You never know who you’re gonna get.
Sometimes teams are matched with partners they know nothing about. Other times the matchups feel like deja-vu, pairing teams that have just played each other the week before. Then there are the familiar pairings — opponents you know perhaps more than you’d like — opponents you’d rather not have to face again.
It’s all based on a point system accumulated through wins and losses, strength of schedule, etc., etc.
Tonight marks the first round of the Minnesota high school football playoffs, and intriguing matchups abound in southwest Minnesota.In Section 3 9-man, Fulda (sixth seeded) is at Edgerton/Ellsworth (3), Hancock (7) is at Mountain Lake Area (2), Hills-Beaver Creek (5) is at Westbrook-Walnut Grove (4) and Renville County West (8) is at Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley (1).In Section 3 Class A, Red Rock Central (6) is at Tracy-Milroy-Balaton (3) and Murray County Central (5) is at St. Clair (4).In Section 3 Class AA, Pipestone Area (6) is at Luverne (3), Windom Area (7) is at Maple River (2), New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva (5) is at Martin County West (4) and St. James Area (8) is at Jackson County Central (1).In Section 3 Class AAA, Sibley East (6) is at St. Peter (3) and Worthington (5) is at Blue Earth Area (4).H-BC, W-WGdo it againThat “de-ja vu” feeling can be applied to Hills-Beaver Creek and Westbrook-Walnut Grove. The two Southern Confederacy West clubs met on the field of battle in Westbrook last Wednesday — both of them knowing that regardless who won the game, they’d meet again in the playoffs less than a week later with only home field advantage at stake.Lead changes were exchanged several times last week before Westbrook-Walnut Grove emerged the winner, 52-48. Tonight, H-BC will try to contain W-WG quarterback Shane Buchman, who completed 24 of 38 passes for 278 yards in the Wednesday clash, including three touchdown tosses to Sean McCroskey, who made 10 receptions overall for 138 yards. The Patriots suffered from key injuries through the first half of the season, but entered the W-WG contest in fairly good health. However, their talented quarterback, Dylan Gehrke, was hurt in the second quarter and did not return.Both teams own 5-3 records.Another chance forLuverne in big rivalryIt may be a little bit awkward today for Pipestone Area and Luverne. There are few rivalries as steeped as this one, and the Arrows achieved their fondest dreams on Sept. 27 in a 22-21 come-from-behind victory over the Cards in Luverne — bringing home the historic Battle Axe trophy for the first time since 2002. The Arrows were clearly inspired on that night, and they’ll need to be inspired again in the rematch. Since then, the two Southwest Conference teams have headed in different directions.“The second time around, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Pipestone Area head coach Troy Bouman on Monday. “They’re coming off three straight wins and we’re coming off two losses.”The two squads have had interesting seasons until now, to say the least. Luverne entered the 2013 campaign judged to be a Southwest Conference title contender, and the Cardinals looked every bit like it until they were beaten in Week Three by defending conference champion Marshall, 22-7. They followed that up with a 39-13 loss to the team that was to win the conference, Jackson County Central, and then came the loss to Pipestone Area. But they’ve since beaten Windom Area, St. Peter and Redwood Valley in convincing fashion.Luverne brings a 5-3 record into tonight’s game. Pipestone Area is 3-5.Bouman is hopeful, but wary. “You know they’re going to make adjustments,” he says of the Cardinals, and he adds, “We know we’re going to have our hands full. They’ve been playing a lot more aggressive.”To win again in Luverne, said the PA coach, the Arrows will need to win the turnover battle and stop the run as well as they did in the initial meeting. And they’ll also need to make better blocking decisions on the offensive line than they’ve done lately.Bucs, Trojans havebeen inconsistentThe matchup between the Blue Earth Area Buccaneers and Worthington Trojans appears difficult to judge. They haven’t played each other yet and they’ve got only two common opponents. Blue Earth Area defeated Windom Area 34-0 in Week Three and Worthington beat Windom Area 42-14 in Week Four. Worthington lost to Fairmont 26-0 in Week One and Blue Earth Area lost to Fairmont 40-22 in Week Six.In assessing his team’s season thus far on Monday, Blue Earth Area head coach Randy Kuechenmeister could have been saying much the same as his counterpart, Trojans coach Brad Grimmius, could have said in describing his own team. The Bucs have run the ball well at times, he maintained, and passed it well at times. They’ve had some good moments on defense. But on both sides of the football, they’ve showed some inconsistency.Unlike Worthington, Blue Earth Area began the season well, winning their first three games. But they ran into some trouble at midpoint, and now own a 5-3 record.It wasn’t a change in performance that gave the Bucs their turbulence, Kuechenmeister said, but rather, better teams on the schedule.In Worthington (3-5), Kuechenmeister sees a team that he expects will provide his outfit a stiff test.“They’ve got some speed and they’ve got some players who play physical and fast,” he said Monday.Worthington didn’t score a point in its first two games, both losses. But the team has shown resiliency, finding its offense in the second half of a 14-6 Week Three victory over Redwood Valley, then showing off more of it the following week in its Windom Area triumph. Two more losses where the offense suffered, against Annandale and Marshall, followed. But the Trojans played very well on both sides of the football the next week in a 26-0 shutout of Pipestone Area.Quarterback Will Dudley has big-play potential for WHS both with his feet and with his arm, and quick, shifty running backs Troy Ektnitphong, Marcus Potter, Robert Lovan and Jessie Guerra are capable of ripping off big chunks of yardage. The Trojans are not a big team physically but aim to beat opponents defensively by getting off the ball quickly and hitting their gaps.Blue Earth Area is led offensively by senior backs David Franta and Gus Phillips, who also line up at receiver in the team’s spread system. Phillips rushed 17 times for 145 yards and four touchdowns last week in a 42-14 victory over St. James, and Franta carried eight times for 60 yards and caught four passes for 18 yards in the same game.Though Kuechenmeister throws around the word “inconsistent” at times, he also says the Bucs have shown “more positives than negatives” this season.As for the Trojans, Grimmius is stressing focus — grabbing the momentum, and holding on.“Both teams are struggling to find consistency. The key is we’ve got to take care of the ball and play aggressive on both sides,” he said.Opportunity forthe underdogsCritics of the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) playoff system, where struggling teams see their disappointing seasons extended, may point to the first-round Section 3 9-man pairing of Renville County West and Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley as a reason to limit qualifiers. Proponents of the system may point to the same game. Fans love a David and Goliath story, and if ever there were such a story in football, it shows in the RCW vs. CGB contest.Renville County West is 1-7, with its only victory coming in its final regular season game against Southwestern United, by a 41-22 margin. The Jaguars have been beaten by the No. 2 seed in Section 3, Mountain Lake Area, 91-7, and by the No. 3 seed, Edgerton/Ellsworth, 62-13. A week before beating SWU, they were beaten by the fifth-seeded team in the section, Hills-Beaver Creek, 42-14.Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley, on the other hand, besides being the No. 1 seed in the section and undefeated, is the defending state 9-man champion.So, critics, have your field day. If it seems cruel to pit the Jaguars against the Wolverines this week, you may be right. But if the Jags can pull off the upset … well, you just never know.It may seem funny to consider either fifth-seeded Murray County Central or fourth-seeded St. Clair an underdog in today’s Section 3 Class A game in St. Clair, but to MCC head coach Travis Van Overbeke, it matters.“We’re the underdog again. I guess I prefer it that way,” Van Overbeke said on Monday.The Rebels bring a 2-6 record into the contest. St. Clair is also 2-6.If Van Overbeke prefers being the underdog, it may be because his team has lost its last four games — although the last one, a 14-12 setback to Lakeview — was close. The Rebels, after running a double wing over the last 16 years, installed more of a pro style offense this year under Van Overbeke, who says his players seem to like it.“I think it’s exciting for them,” he said.Even so, the coach says victory or defeat today should be determined the old-fashioned way — by who wins the one-on-one assignments. The Rebels have had some slow starts this year, but they may need to start fast against the Cyclones, who employ a double wing with three running backs Van Overbeke calls “sneaky fast.” The MCC defense performed well last week, but Van Overbeke says to beat St. Clair it will need to avoid getting crossed up by the “trickery” that the double wing presents.Whenever the top of any playoff bracket meets the bottom, which always happens in first-round Minnesota high school football contests, there are the inevitable underdogs. In Section 3 9-man, Edgerton/Ellsworth (hosting Fulda) and Mountain Lake Area (hosting Hancock) — who’ve been beating up on the opposition all season until they faced each other on Oct. 11 —are heavily favored. Similarly, in Section 3 Class AA, the 7-1 Maple River Eagles will enter as big favorites against another team of Eagles, Windom Area (2-6), and top-seeded Jackson County Central (7-1) is expected to have little difficulty dispatching No. 8 St. James (2-6).But, of course, nobody knows for sure. As an unidentified wise man once said: That’s why they play ‘em.