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CERSOSIMO: Now, there's no question mark

After a season in which the Mitchell football team finished 1-8, there was a question mark on this season.

The questions came from those involved in Mitchell athletics, players' family members and people in the community, especially with the new renovations of the Mitchell High School weight room, which is primarily used by the football team during the summer months.

How are the Kernels going to be this year? Do you think they can win? Will they have a better season than last? Would the weight room investment pay off?

Without any doubt of their own, this year's players knew the answer. Since the final game of the 2012 regular season when Mitchell defeated Huron, the returning players had Yankton pegged as their next target.

In the weeks leading up to the Kernels' season opener against the Bucks, Mitchell football players said, with confidence, "We can beat them."

Not everybody agreed.

In the South Dakota Sportswriters Association preseason football poll, Yankton was the top-ranked team in Class AA. Mitchell was barely on the poll, receiving the fewest votes.

And again, in the Eastern South Dakota Conference preseason coaches' poll, which was conducted by The Daily Republic, the Kernels were picked to finish last. In the poll -- in which coaches could not vote for their own teams -- Mitchell received five eighth-place votes, one seventh-place vote and two sixth-place votes.

The Kernels were polled behind rival Huron and ESD newcomer Harrisburg -- which played at the Class 11A level last season.

Last week, the players and coaches in black and gold set out to change the minds of nearly every South Dakota football guru.

They did.

The Kernels defeated the preseason top-ranked Bucks 27-21 on the road. The highlight reel was ample for the back-and-forth season opener: a Matt Larson interception on the first play of the game; Kanin Nelson's beeline touchdown pass through a sea of red to Landon Neugebauer in the back of the endzone; Mitch Johnson's interception returned for a touchdown late in the first half; a fourth-and-long defensive stop on the Bucks' final drive of the game; a Jon Jamison sack for a loss; and a third interception by Chase Harms at the end of the first half.

With an eager Mitchell crowd in the bleachers, the Kernels made the fans believe down after down.

After defeating the Bucks for the first time since the 1987 regular season -- which ended Yankton's 29-game win streak over Mitchell -- the Kernels smiled from ear to ear. Players on the sidelines sprinted, jumped and cheered their way to meet their teammates on the field. All of the players stayed together in a jumping huddle, savoring the moment.

Yet, it wasn't just a celebration of beating Yankton. It was a celebration of hard work, determination and meeting an expectation -- a winning expectation.

"We thought that we could beat them on day one and knew it all along," junior running back Mitch Johnson said after Saturday's game. "We're not surprised by this at all right now, and we are extremely happy about this win."

Mitchell turned heads Saturday and paved the way for the rest of the season. The Kernels moved to No. 3 in the poll this week, jumping ahead of five Class AA teams from the previous week, including Yankton and Friday's opponent Harrisburg.

"They thought they could win, but until you come out and do that, there's still a question mark there," said Mitchell defensive coordinator Arend Kuyper, who's been with the Kernel football program since the early 1990s. "Now there's no question mark. They know they can win."

And so does everyone else.

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.