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LUKE HAGEN: Running backs a big reason for Cornbelt Conference's success

VERMILLION -- It was an absolute bone-crushing hit.

Canistota running back Jeb Olsen lowered his shoulder and plowed through a Hitchcock-Tulare tackler at the goal line.

Olsen crunched into Patriots linebacker Dan Marshall, who stayed on the ground for quite a while after the hit. For the remainder of the game, Marshall had his shoulder wrapped in ice and never left the sideline.

Olsen broke his collar bone.

"That's typical Jeb Olsen running," said Canistota coach Lenny Schroeder, whose team routed Hitchcock-Tulare 66-0. "He's just a little blood hound out there."

It was Canistota's first rushing touchdown of the game and one of many for three Cornbelt Conference teams, which each won 9-man state titles Thursday at the DakotaDome in Vermillion.

Along with Olsen, Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan's Jordan Connor and Hanson's Pierce Smith each had strong rushing performances. And that's because the ground attack from the Cornbelt Conference rules 9-man football in South Dakota.

Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan didn't record a single yard passing in its 48-34 win over Viborg/Hurley. It rushed for 474 yards, 295 of which came from Connor.

The senior broke two state 9AA rushing records, including most rushing attempts in a single game and most rushing yards.

Besides Connor, who rushed for four touchdowns, the Seahawks also got 181 yards and two touchdowns from sophomore Anthony Huber.

"They just kept pounding it at us and that just wore us down," Viborg/Hurley coach John Nyhaug said. "We knew what they were going to do. They were just going to keep running it at us."

Seahawks coach Jeff VanLeur said it's not surprising the three Cornbelt Conference teams were run dominant Thursday. In 9-man football, having a strong running game is vital.

"At this time of year, you have to be able to rush the ball," VanLeur said. "In South Dakota, if you want to advance in the playoffs, you have to be able to run. We work hard at that all year long and it paid off for us."

Connor, Olsen and Smith were all named the MVP and outstanding back of their respective games. Olsen had the least productive rushing day with 109 yards, but he was pulled along with many of his other starting teammates and watched the JV played the entire fourth quarter.

However, Olsen was a big factor in helping Canistota claim the Cornbelt Conference title this season by beating both Hanson and Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan.

"He's an aggressive runner," Hitchcock-Tulare coach Kenny Huether said of Olsen. "He's the whole package."

Hanson's Smith had 281 yards and three touchdowns in Hanson's 34-16 win over Harding County. The first time he touched the ball, he broke free to score the game's first touchdown, a 90-yarder.

Like Connor, Smith also broke two state records. He had the most rushing attempts in a Class 9A state title game and the most rushing yards.

Hanson finished with 455 total yards of offense, 437 of which were rushing-attack yards.

At the end of the day, the Cornbelt Conference's top three running backs -- Connor, Smith and Olsen -- combined for 685 yards. The Cornbelt's top three teams combined for 1,301 rushing yards and 148 total points.

In the 19 total touchdowns the Hawks, the Seahawks and the Beavers scored Thursday, 16 of 19 came from their ground assault.

And that's what makes them not only the best teams in their conference, but the best 9-man football teams in the state.