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Mitchell, Bucks meet in first round of playoffs

Mitchell’s Matt Larson (10) runs the ball through the tackle of Chase Klingaman (64) with the help of Micah Hettinger (55) blocking at Kernel practice Wednesday in Mitchell. Kernel coach Kent VanOverschelde is pictured in the background. (Nick McCutcheon/Republic)

The Mitchell High School football team gets a chance to forget about the last four games when the Kernels play the Yankton Bucks in the first round of the Class 11AA state playoffs at 7 tonight at Crane-Youngworth Field in Yankton.

Despite ending the regular season with a four-game losing streak, the Kernels (3-5) should play with a sense of confidence after winning in Yankton 27-21 in the season opener. The victory earlier this season was the first for Mitchell over Yankton since 1987.

“For us to be successful, we have to show the desire to make big plays and the ability to overcome the back-and-forth play of a football game,” Mitchell coach Kent VanOverschelde said at practice Wednesday.

Mitchell used big plays on offense and defense to down the Bucks last time. VanOverschelde knows that capitalizing on Yankton (4-4) mistakes will play a key role for Mitchell tonight.

“In the first part of the season, we got some help from special teams and from the defense with turnovers,” VanOverschelde said. “We have to force them into mistakes and make the most of any opportunity to make plays and swing the momentum of the game.”

In his debut as the starting quarterback for Mitchell, sophomore Kanin Nelson threw for 110 yards and two scores, while carrying the ball for 65 yards in the opening week over Yankton. While Nelson has seen his share of growing pains, his performance last week against rival Huron has VanOverschelde encouraged about his young quarterback.

Nelson has completed 69 of 144 pass attempts for 792 yards, while throwing five touchdowns and five interceptions. He has shown dual-threat ability this year, rushing for 249 yards on 100 carries and scoring six touchdowns.

Against Huron, Nelson showed off his power running ability, carrying the ball 13 times for 71 yards and finding the end zone for a touchdown.

Last time out against the Bucks, wide receiver Beau Brown made a pair of big receptions, including the game-winning touchdown with three minutes left in the fourth quarter.

“Brown was definitely a thorn in our side last time and he made some big plays,” Yankton coach Arlin Likness said.

Since the opening game, Brown has been sidelined with concussion-like symptoms and will not play for the Kernels tonight.

After leaving the game early last week against Huron with a lingering lower-body injury, running back and punt returner Chase Harms is a game-time decision for the playoff game against Yankton. Harms was in pads and practicing Wednesday.

Running back Mitch Johnson carried the ball 23 times for 63 yards and a touchdown last time against Yankton and will need to be strong again to help Mitchell establish its inside running attack.

“We have to have more fire,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to put the last four games behind us. We know we can beat this team because we have done it before.”

Johnson has 518 yards and four touchdowns on 128 carries and four touchdowns.

Senior Matt Larson has been a popular target for Nelson this season, catching 14 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown that came on a hook and lateral play earlier in the season against Brookings. Tight end Ethan Jones leads the Kernels in receptions, hauling in 20 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown.

Larson has also been a force on the defensive side of the ball for Mitchell, leading the Kernels in tackles with 83, while adding an interception and a fumble recovery. Alex Herrick has racked up 54 tackles for the Mitchell defense, while Preston Skinner has 48 and Austin Getty has contributed 41.

Mason Strahl, who started at quarterback for Yankton in its opening-week loss to Mitchell, has thrown for 1,221 yards and five touchdowns. Strahl has added seven rushing touchdowns for the Bucks, including two earlier in the season against Mitchell.

“Last time against Mitchell, they kept us with a long field on offense and we made too many mistakes,” Likness said.

Brady Hale, who missed the season-opening game against the Kernels, has thrown for 533 yards on 46-of-94 passing and six touchdowns. Hale may see some snaps under center for the Bucks.

The Kernels will have to be aware at all times where wide receiver J.J. Hejna is on the field. Hejna has caught 48 passes for 943 yards and eight touchdowns this year.

It has been a roller coaster year for Mitchell and Yankton, with both teams pulling off upsets and fumbling through portions of the schedule in the first year of the new Class 11AA football format.

For Mitchell to be successful tonight, the aggression and opportunistic play it showed when starting the year 3-1 needs to be there.