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Prep football: JCC, MLA, T-M-B have Dome dreams

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Chatfield, Grand Meadow and Bethlehem Academy are all that stand in the way of games in the Metrodome for Section 3 football champions Jackson County Central, Mountain Lake Area and Tracy-Milroy-Balaton.

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State quarterfinal high school football games begin tonight (Nov. 8) as Section 3AA powerhouse Jackson County Central contends with Chatfield at 7 p.m. at Rochester Community & Technical College in Rochester. Then on Saturday at Southwest State University in Marshall, Section 3 9-Man champ Mountain Lake Area takes on Grand Meadow at noon. Also on Saturday, at 1 p.m. at Rochester Community & Technical College, Section 3A titleist Tracy-Milroy-Balaton goes against Bethlehem Academy.

The winners go on to play in state semifinal games — all of them on the home turf of the Minnesota Vikings.

Area fans already know what makes JCC, MLA and T-M-B tick. But who are these Chatfield, Grand Meadow and Bethlehem Academy teams fixing to rain on their parades?

An overview:

Class AA: JCC vs. Chatfield The Chatfield Gophers have already accomplished a major feat. They beat top-ranked Caledonia 13-10 in overtime on Nov. 1 to win the Section 1AA championship.

Caledonia has been a thorn in Chatfield’s side for years and years. The Warriors beat the Gophers in the 2013 season opener 19-18 and they’ve beaten them many times before through the seasons. This year marked the third time in the last seven years that Chatfield and Caledonia met in the section finals, and until last Friday the last time the Gophers beat the Warriors was in 2008.

So it’s a fair question to ask: Will the Gophers have anything left for the Huskies tonight?

We shall see. One thing is for sure, and that is that Chatfield head coach Jeff Johnson is well aware of what Jackson County Central has to offer. His team scrimmaged the Huskies in August and he remembers that back then the Gophers faced a team that was big up front with “a couple of good running backs that run extremely hard.”

It’s defense that revs Chatfield’s motor.

“Our forte is our run defense,” Johnson said this week.

That should help. Jackson County Central is a run-oriented team that used its running game effectively once again in beating Maple River 23-7 for the Section 3AA championship. Keegan Moore led the way with 31 carries for 150 yards.

Chatfield runs a lot, too. In fact, Johnson warned fans this week to pay attention. There will be lots of running from both teams; the clock will do a lot of running, too. In other words, tonight’s game will move fast.

The Gophers are led offensively by senior running back Jacob Neis, who has scored 26 touchdowns this year and has rushed for more than 1,400 yards. But just in case you think running is all CHS can do, quarterback Nate Skare has passed for 800 yards.

Defensively, the Section 1 champs gave up just 796 yards rushing in the regular season (eight games), and that included many plays involving second-teamers. The first team hasn’t allowed more than two touchdowns in any game this year. Opponents averaged just 8.3 points per game.

Johnson says the Gophers have good senior leadership. There are 13 seniors on the team and every one of them plays.

“Their No. 1 goal was to win the section and get a chance to beat Caledonia. That group has gone back and forth since the seventh grade,” Johnson said.

Class 9-Man: Mountain Lake Area vs. Grand Meadow Saturday’s game will be something of a rematch. Last year in the state quarterfinals, Grand Meadow defeated Mountain Lake Area 34-20 en route to the championship game where they lost 40-22 to Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley.

Mountain Lake Area tripped C-G-B in overtime last week to win Section 3.

This time around, Grand Meadow head coach Gary Sloan is very wary of the Wolverines, pointing to the fact that MLA has been putting up huge numbers all season while impressively holding opponents down as well. It all starts, he says, with Wolverines quarterback Carter Kirk, who can beat opponents like a drum both running or passing the football.

“They make you defend the entire width of the field as well as the entire length of the field,” Sloan says of the Wolverines. “When they do that, you’ve got to be sure tacklers.”

Grand Meadow graduated 10 seniors from last season’s 12-2 team. Only three seniors are on the roster in 2013, and just two of them play significantly.

“We knew we were going to be young, but our junior varsity team was undefeated last year. So we knew we had some players,” said Sloan.

The Superlarks are not big, but they’re quick. “Our defense is built at getting multiple people to the ball. We’re not going to overpower anybody,” said the coach.

One important veteran returns to the team, and he’s a good one. He’s 6-2, 190-pound quarterback Trenton Bleifus, who like Kirk can win by throwing or running. A three-year starter, Bleifus has thrown for 16 touchdowns this year (against just five interceptions) and rushed for 11 more. Last year his numbers looked even better, with 33 touchdowns passing and 17 more rushing, for 50 overall.

Oh, yeah, he tossed a mere four interceptions.

“I’ve been coaching here for 28 years,” testified Sloan, “and he’s as good a quarterback as we’ve ever had.”

Class A: T-M-B vs. Bethlehem Academy Faribault Bethlehem Academy wasn’t considered the favorite in its Section 1A championship game last Friday, but the Cardinals beat Blooming Prairie anyway, 28-20, as Christian VonRuden scored two fourth quarter touchdowns while amassing 254 rushing yards on 36 carries.

Thus, Bethlehem Academy captured its second straight section championship. The Cards went far in the state Class A tournament last year, beating Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s 43-12 in their quarterfinal game, Dawson-Boyd 29-20 in the semifinals, then losing to Mahnomen 20-14 in the title contest.

It’s apparent that the 2013 Cardinals have used an us-against-the-world philosophy to their advantage this year. They lost several solid seniors off last season’s team, and not everyone thought they’d make it back to state. That opinion may not have been shared by the Bethlehem Academy players and coaching staff, however.

Miles Trump, in the Faribault Daily News, quoted BA head coach Scott Hanson after winning the section championship: “We expected to be in this situation again, and there’s lots of people out there that didn’t think that we could do what we’ve been doing.”

But after losing all but three full-time starters, the Cardinals fought back to get to the state tournament.

Both Bethlehem Academy and Tracy-Milroy-Balaton possess 8-3 records. Both teams were seeded No. 3 in their own sections. Both teams defeated their sections’ No. 1 seeds to get to state.

Last Friday, BA gave up 185 yards passing (on 42 attempts, with six interceptions) against Blooming Prairie. On Saturday, the Cardinals will face another team with a dangerous passing attack. Tracy-Milroy-Balaton quarterback Brett Swenhaugen has completed 57 percent of his passes this year for 1,764 yards and 17 touchdowns.

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Doug Wolter
Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and six grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He self-publishes short stories in his spare time. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" are being distributed through a national publisher.
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