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Dragons look to ground Crusaders' air attack

ADRIAN -- Coming off an impressive victory over Wabasso in the Section 3A championship game last Friday, the Adrian Dragons have been gearing up for their upcoming state tournament quarterfinal contest at Blakeslee Stadium on the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Adrian (9-2) will square off with Mankato Loyola (10-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The high-scoring Crusaders rolled to a 45-17 victory over LeCenter (8-3) in the Section 2A finals last weekend.

The winner will advance to the state semifinals at the Metrodome Nov. 16 at 10:15 a.m.

Mahnomen (8-3) tangles with undefeated Cook County (11-0) in Duluth Saturday in the other quarterfinal game in Adrian's bracket.

"It has been an exciting run," AHS assistant coach Kevin Nowotny said Thursday evening. "We were undefeated during the regular season last year with an outstanding senior class. This year, we have tried different players at different positions and it has been fun how it has worked out for us."

Nowotny knows that Loyola presents an exceptional passing game, featuring tall receivers at the ends and that the Crusaders will often throw to their backs, as well.

"We have faced good passing teams before," noted Nowotny. "Both T-M-B (Tracy-Milroy-Balaton) and Wabasso had similar styles. We will stick with the same game plan, which worked much better against Wabasso. We tweaked things a little, but the kids just played so much better."

Leading that Crusader aerial attack has been junior quarterback D.J. Wesely, who has completed 90 passes this season (in 179 attempts) for 1,459 yards, including 19 touchdown passes.

Running back Bruce Tanhoff has caught 24 of those passes for a team-leading 349 yards. The 180-pound senior has also rushed for 743 yards on 85 carries.

Ends Jack Michaletz (20 catches) and Joe DeGezelle (12 receptions) both have 270 receiving yards, while backs Joe Fink and Max Rotchadi each have caught eight passes for 141 and 119 yards, respectively.

DeGezelle, who averages 22.5 yards per catch, has caught six touchdown passes, while both Fink and Tanhoff have hauled in three TD receptions coming out of the backfield.

That gives the Crusaders five capable receivers in their well-balanced passing attack.

"Early in the season we were throwing the ball a lot," fourth-year Loyola head coach Dan Rotchadi said Thursday evening. "But in the past few games, we have been running the ball more and have become a more diversified offensive team."

Fink, a 160-pound junior, has rushed the ball 103 times for a team-leading 899 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Complementing the carries of halfbacks Fink and Tanhoff, has been the punishing running of fullback Max Rotchadi -- an academic all-state selection -- who has gained 526 yards on the ground (93 carries).

From their linebacker positions, Rotchadi and Tanhoff lead the Crusaders in tackles, with 114 and 109, respectively, for the season.

Loyola also boasts an outstanding place kicker, as senior defensive back Adam Gaspar booted a 55-yard field goal -- the second longest in state history -- in the victory over LeCenter. Gaspar has made 21 extra point kicks this season.

After a fine 9-2 campaign in 2006, the Crusaders opened this season with five straight victories before being defeated by Gopher Conference champion Blooming Prairie, 46-14, in Week 6.

Loyola bounced back with big wins over Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial (38-8) and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton (56-29) to finish the regular season at 7-1.

Playoff victories over Granada-Huntley-East Chain/Martin Luther (47-20) and McLeod West (36-14) preceeded the sectional title win over LeCenter.

Earlier in the season -- in Week 4, the Crusaders edged LeCenter by a single point, 21-20. Wesely was 20-of-32 passing in that game for 238 yards.

"Loyola was down 20-7 in that game and came back by passing on every play of the second half," exclaimed Nowotny. "But our defensive backs are playing better and we think we are ready for the challenge."

Patrolling the defensive backfield for the Dragons have been the foursome of Adam Diekmann, Matt Gades, Justin Weidert and Jesse Brake.

"They will need to the job back there," pointed out Nowotny. "Plus, our front four -- Tanner Loosbrock, Jordan Reker, Mitchell Cox and Danny Parsley -- are going to need to put the pressure on their quarterback, like they did in the Wabasso game."

Adrian linebackers Tony Thier, Glen Kruger and Zach Reker will need contain the Crusader ground game, allowing the Dragon linemen and backs to defend the pass.

The Dragons, by contrast, have been mostly a ball-control, rushing team most of the season.

Backs Brake, Thier and Joey Bertrand have combined for over 1,400 rushing yards for the Dragons, and Kruger, a 225-pound fullback, had some big gains against Wabasso.

Leading the Dragon charge up front have been starting offensive linemen Cox (center), Zach Reker (left guard), Kyle Lunt (right guard), Jordan Reker (left tackle) and Cory Nelson (right tackle), along with Parsley (left end) and Diekmann (right end).

"We know that Adrian runs the ball hard and that they block well at the point of attack," praised Rotchadi. "We expect a very physical game from a formidable opponent that is well-coached and fundamentally sound."

The Dragons, like the Crusaders, opened the season with five straight wins. After having outscored those five opponents by a commanding 191-38 margin, Adrian suffered back-to-back defeats to Little Sioux Conference co-champions Tracy-Milroy-Balaton (41-7) and Dawson-Boyd (20-7).

A 30-6 victory over Murray County Central closed out Adrian's regular season at 6-2. Playoff wins over Red Rock Central (36-8), MCC (30-0) and undefeated Wabasso (19-7) have lifted the Dragons to the state tournament for the first time since 1998, when Adrian claimed its second straight state runner-up trophy.