Keeping opponents off the scoreboard, the Mitchell High School football team is currently riding a championship-caliber defense.
Mitchell's defensive unit has played a huge role in the Kernels' first 10 games and has the team is standing one win away from a return trip the DakotaDome.
At the start of the season, the Kernels knew their defense would be strong and the unit has been mostly stout, only giving up big plays against Sioux Falls Washington and Yankton. But since the calendar flipped to October, the defense has found another gear
On the season, Mitchell (7-3) is allowing an average of 14 points per game. In four October games, the Kernels have allowed eight points per game. And if you don't count Sturgis' 12 points against Mitchell's second-string defense, that number drops to five points per game.
"This is when we want to be playing our best," Mitchell defensive back Jarod Uher said after Thursday's 41-12 quarterfinal win over Sturgis. "The biggest thing is we are getting our defensive linemen going and that just makes it easier for everyone else."
Based on scoring by quarter, the Kernels have kept opponents off the scoreboard in 12 of the last 16 quarters played. Half of those 16 quarters came against No. 1-seed Pierre and No. 3-seed Harrisburg, which Mitchell will host in a semifinal game at 7 p.m. Friday at Joe Quintal Field.
"Defensively, we can play as good as we did last time and stick with them," Uher said about facing Harrisburg. "We can beat them."
At the forefront of the Kernel defense has been the defensive line, featuring D.J. Krogman, Gregory Guthrie, Levi Winne, Kyle Foote and Dylan Krogman. The five players have combined for 12.5 sacks and 49.5 tackles for loss this season. When the defensive line isn't recording sacks or tackles for loss, the unit is creating pressure and forcing opposing teams to work faster.
"The way they get off the football and attack (stands out)," Sturgis head coach Chris Koletzky said about Mitchell's defense. "They are coached well. Throwing the ball, we had to get it off quicker. With them getting off the ball, we had to get our blocks quicker. We just weren't ready for that."
Just behind the defensive line, linebackers Briggs Havlik, Carson Max, Max Schoenfelder and Drew Kitchens have swarmed to the ball and racked up the tackles. Havlik leads the team with 66 tackles, while Max and Schoenfelder each have 65 and Kitchens has 26.
"The only way our defense gets going is when everyone is working at the same level and same intensity," said Havlik, who also has three fumble recoveries, two pass deflections and 1.5 sacks. "If the (defensive) line is going hard and everyone else is going hard, we make stops."
In 10 games, Mitchell has created 15 turnovers (eight fumbles and seven interceptions). Uher leads the defense with two interceptions, while five different players have each contributed an interception. Uher, Logan Sparks, Jordan Dirkes and Austin Kerr have provided plenty of tackles, while keeping opponents from generating any big plays.
"We've been doing a good job of working together at a high level," Havlik said. "We go out there and hit hard."
Now Mitchell's defense will prepare for one of its tougher tests with Harrisburg quarterback Hunter Headlee joining the Tigers. Headlee, who suffered a broken collarbone earlier in the season, rushed for 130 yards and scored three touchdowns in Harrisburg's 27-8 win over Huron on Thursday.
"We're all really excited," Havlik said about facing Harrisburg. "I bet they're excited to have him (Headlee) back, but our mindset isn't going to change. We have to excel at all levels and hit it hard when we get on the field."