Warriors, Mustangs to battle in rematch of 2009 Hail Mary gameWINNER — When Winner High School defeated Tri-Valley for the state 11B title in 2009, it sparked inspiration for a group of freshmen.
By: Luke Hagen, The Daily Republic
WINNER — When Winner High School defeated Tri-Valley for the state 11B title in 2009, it sparked inspiration for a group of freshmen.
“None of them got into the game, but being on the sidelines, going through that season and experiencing the things they’ll remember forever has been a pretty big motivator for them to get back,” Winner coach Dan Aaker said. “They want to try and do it again.”
Today, the freshmen who watched their upperclassmen teammates beat Tri-Valley on a game-winning Hail Mary pass three seasons ago are taking the field as seniors for the 11B championship. The top-seeded Warriors (11-0) play defending champion Tri-Valley (10-1) at 2:30 p.m. in Vermillion’s DakotaDome. The teams match up for the 11B title for the second time in the past four seasons.
The now-seniors are looking to write a piece of their own Winner football history.
“It’s a completely different team, but they also remember the seniors from that year and how they approached football and how they worked hard,” Aaker said.
Steve Bazata joined Tri-Valley’s staff as an assistant the year after the Warriors topped the Mustangs for the state championship. Bazata, who’s in his first year as the head coach, has watched the entire 2009 title game on tape but added there’s no revenge factor headed into today’s matchup.
Like Winner, none of the Tri-Valley freshmen who are now seniors saw field time in the championship game.
“To be honest, we really haven’t talked about that and no one has really said anything at all,” Bazata said. “I don’t think we’re avoiding it, but it was just one of those crazy things that happened.”
Both coaches agreed their teams are similar in style. The Warriors and Mustangs lean heavily on their running games and have an assembly of backs to handle the ball.
Winner, averaging 317.5 rushing yards per game, has two players who have eclipsed 900 yards on the ground this year. Senior Ben Connot has 116 rushes for 950 yards and 14 TDs and Kyle Bertram has 108 carries for 959 yards and 10 touchdowns. Trace Meyer has added 670 yards and 10 touchdowns on 96 carries and quarterback Tanner Fritz has nine rushing scores.
“They’ve got three or four guys they can give the ball to, and that makes it tough to key in on one guy,” Bazata said. “We’re going to try and play fundamentally sound defense.”
Although Winner has used its ground attack as its bread and butter this year, the Warriors needed a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to win its semifinal game over Flandreau last weekend.
Fritz fired a 33-yard TD to Isiah Old Lodge on fourth-and-5 with about a minute to play to seal the victory. Fritz is 29-of-45 for 650 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Old Lodge has caught five touchdowns and is leading the team with 10 catches for 256 yards on the season.
“We needed a game like that,” Aaker said. “We hadn’t had a testing game in the fourth quarter all year. It was good for us to experience that and it was good for us to overcome some adversity and show resiliency. We can lean on that a little bit if things don’t go the way we plan.”
The Mustangs’ Logan Koopman has 128 carries on the year for 1,252 yards and 15 touchdowns. Sam Mader has 135 carries for 605 yards and nine touchdowns and Logan Otto has 500 yards and five touchdowns on the season.
Quarterback Brett Page leads the Mustangs with 554 yards through the air. He has 203 rushing yards and 16 combined touchdowns.
“The offenses are very close,” Aaker said. “The one thing that sticks out is they’re a lot bigger than us, but that’s nothing that we haven’t seen. We’ve been kind of a smaller team up front and that’s not going to change. We’re going to have to counter that with quickness, execution and by being physical. The line of scrimmage will be huge.”
Tri-Valley, the No. 2 seed in the 11B playoffs, defeated Aberdeen Roncalli last weekend in the semifinals. The Mustangs’ lone loss this year is to Flandreau, the team Winner defeated six days ago.
“Nothing is going to be easy in this game,” Bazata said. “ … We’re very similar teams. We live and die by smash-mouth football. The team that does that best will have the upper hand in this one.”