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A member of the 1993 Mitchell Kernel football team crouches down after Mitchell fell 21-6 to Sioux Falls O’Gorman in the Class 11AA championship game at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (republic file photo)

Former players, coach Sprang relive, cherish 1993 road to DakotaDome

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It’s been 20 years since the 1993 Kernel football team went out like a lion, after coming in as a 1-6 lamb.

The Kernels struggled through several disappointing losses in the regular season and advancing through the playoffs was a tall order.

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“It was one of those wild and crazy years where the ball bounced every way but our way,” former Mitchell football coach Bob Sprang said. Sprang coached the Kernels from 1978 to 1993 before leaving to coach at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Sprang remembers it seemed that every fumble had four or five Kernels and one opposing player, and every time Mitchell would fail to come away with the ball. All the bad luck seemed to disappear in the last week of the regular season with a home game against Pierre.

The lopsided 42-13 victory over the Governors the week before the playoffs turned the tide, starting one of the most unexpected and memorable runs in Kernel football history.

Mitchell went on to win three straight playoff games, before falling to Sioux Falls O’Gorman in the Class 11AA championship game at the DakotaDome. The 2013 season marks the 20th anniversary of the last Mitchell team to reach the championship game. This year’s Kernel team wrapped up its regular season Thursday night and now heads into the playoffs with a 3-5 record. Mitchell plays Yankton in the first round of the Class 11AA playoffs at 7 p.m. Thursday in Yankton.

This year’s Mitchell football squad is riding a four-game losing streak heading into the playoffs and could use another magical run.

“I was most proud of the way we continued to fight back,” Sprang said of the 1993 season.

Following the victory over Pierre, Mitchell headed on the road to play Aberdeen Central in the first round of the state playoffs in below-zero temperatures.

Things looked bleak early. The Kernels lost on homecoming in 1993 to Aberdeen Central on a last-second field goal and fell behind 14-0 to the Golden Eagles at halftime of the playoff game.

In the locker room, offensive lineman Jim Foster stood up on a chair and proceeded to predict the future for his teammates.

“Foster was a very quiet kid, but he was dead serious when he said, ‘We are not going to lose this game,’ ” Sprang said.

“Coach gave his speech and everybody still seemed a little defeated,” Foster said about his locker room pep talk to his teammates. “We had just gotten used to losing, and I was sick of it.”

The speech worked as the Kernels’ defense pitched a shutout the rest of the way, and the offense racked up 28 second-half points for the win.

The next week, Mitchell’s opponent was already picking out uniforms for the Dome, expecting an easy win over the Kernels.

“I heard that Sioux Falls Washington players were shopping for shoes to wear at the Dome, as Mitchell was going to be an easy target,” Sprang said.

Foster said it seemed the whole state was writing us off as a typical Kernel football team.

The Kernels used the excessive confidence of the Warriors as bulletin-board material for added motivation, holding the Warriors to a single field goal. Senior wide receiver Scott Giblin scored the only points in the game for Mitchell, kicking two field goals in the 6-3 win.

“I never got caught up in what other teams said and how bad they were going to beat us,” said Giblin, who today coaches girls’ basketball in Ethan. “It was just one of the nights where it was the right opportunity for me. I was just the lucky one to have that opportunity to help us win. It was one of the most fun times I’ve had playing football.”

Giblin went on to play college football at Dakota Wesleyan after his Mitchell playing days were over.

Heading into their semifinal matchup with Huron, the Kernels knew they would have to step things up to another level to avenge a loss from earlier in the season.

In the semifinals, a late interception and goal-line stand pushed Mitchell past Huron and into the title game at the Dome.

From 1-6 to 5-6, the Kernels’ surprising turnaround was complete, but Mitchell was going to the Dome and a new challenge awaited them.

Playing Sioux Falls O’Gorman in the title game made the Mitchell community hopeful about high school football.

Foster said his team was a little shocked in the first half, going from playing in front of just family and friends to a packed Dome of black and gold.

“Football around here has just never been crazy, and then you had the whole town coming out to games just wanted you to win one more,” Foster said, adding the Kernels were awestruck and didn’t wake up until the third quarter.

Mitchell’s second-season-run ended in a 21-6 loss to O’Gorman at the Dome.

“I think we were scared when we got there,” Foster said recalling his experience.

Despite falling short of a state title, the 1993 Kernel football team was able to conduct a Hollywood comeback from a lost season to a spot in the Dome.

“Some people might have said we got lucky, but I never thought we didn’t belong,” Giblin said.

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