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Defending champions making their moves

Colome, Gregory and Winner are all familiar with the road to the DakotaDome. Last year, three teams separated by 27 miles along U.S. Highway 18 in south central South Dakota took the state by storm and the Cowboys, Gorillas and Warriors each clai...

Colome's Chase Dufek returns a kick upfield against Burke/South Central during a game earlier this season in Colome. (Ryan Deal / Republic)
Colome's Chase Dufek returns a kick upfield against Burke/South Central during a game earlier this season in Colome. (Ryan Deal / Republic)

Colome, Gregory and Winner are all familiar with the road to the DakotaDome.

Last year, three teams separated by 27 miles along U.S. Highway 18 in south central South Dakota took the state by storm and the Cowboys, Gorillas and Warriors each claimed a state championship.

As the 2017 playoffs begin, all three schools are in contention to defend their titles, but each enters the postseason in different scenarios.

Gregory, which locked up its second straight unbeaten regular season with an impressive 44-14 win over No. 3 Miller/Highmore-Harrold last week, enters as a heavy favorite to repeat as Class 9AA champions. The Gorillas will be the No. 1 seed and will host Elkton-Lake Benton in their first playoff contest on Thursday in Gregory.

Gregory head coach Brian Allmendinger said his team needs to continue doing what it does best-light up the scoreboard and play stout defense.

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"The biggest thing is just maintaining the focus and taking it one snap at a time and one game at a time," Allmendinger said.

In eight games, Gregory is averaging 46 points per game and the Gorillas haven't scored less than 34 points this season. Led by 12 seniors, Gregory has plenty of players with postseason experience and Allmenginder said his team faced plenty of challenges in the regular season.

"We've played some really good teams," said Allmendinger, noting Wolsey-Wessington, Rapid City Christian, Kimball/White Lake, Parkston, Bon Homme and Miller/Highmore-Harrold each lost to Gregory and reached the playoffs. "That should prepare us pretty well for the postseason."

Allmendinger stressed how competitive Class 9AA appears to be. He pointed to Hamlin, which also finished the regular season 8-0 and North Border as two tough teams.

"North Border, there's four schools put together there and they have a bunch of upperclassmen on that team," Allmendinger said. "Irene-Wakonda has had a really nice season. Some of the far east teams we don't see a lot but Garretson, Arlington-Lake Preston and Baltic are tough programs. Just like last year, there's just a bunch of good teams out there."

While other teams in Class 9AA will be gunning to knock off the Gorillas, they'll have to do it in Gregory and Allmendinger said home field advantage can't be understated.

"We really like playing at home and it's a special atmosphere," Allmendinger said. "We get a lot of great support from the community."

Winner embracing challenge in Class 11B

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For two-time defending Class 11B state champion Winner, the playoff picture looks a lot different than the previous two seasons. The Warriors (6-2) will host Stanley County in a first-round matchup on Thursday in Winner, but the team will likely have to win a few road contests to advance to the DakotaDome.

As far as Winner head coach Dan Aaker is concerned, his team's postseason began last week with a game that came down to the wire against Woonsocket/Wessington Springs/Sanborn Central. The Blackhawks edged the Warriors 21-14.

"This loss other than where it puts us seeding-wise, doesn't mean anything, we can take a lot from this," Aaker said after last week's game. "Penalties killed us and got us in bad down and distance. We are not built to recover from some of those things, we just have to play cleaner, that's the bottom line."

Aaker added he was proud of his team's effort against the Blackhawks, but noted the loss should be eye-opening ahead of the playoffs.

"(Our guys) know that playing hard isn't going to cut it all the time, you have to execute on top of it," Aaker said. "We know that we can play with anybody, but we also know we have to execute to the fullest ... and that's what is going to be the focus."

Winner is averaging 27.5 points per game, while allowing 13 points per game.

Battle-tested Cowboys in the mix in Class 9B

Colome starts its quest for a repeat title in Class 9B after earning a big 26-20 victory over Class 9A foe Avon last week. The top seed in Region 3, the Cowboys (7-1) will host Sunshine Bible Academy (4-4) in the first round of the Class 9B playoffs on Thursday in Colome.

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Class 9B appears to be as deep as any football class in South Dakota as four teams-Colman-Egan, Sully Buttes, Harding County and Wall-each enter the postseason unbeaten. Colman-Egan, last year's Class 9A state champions, are among the favorites, but the Cowboys returned key pieces from last year's 9B championship team.

"Experience plays an important role in making a run in the playoffs. Knowing what to do in situations and how to handle them helps a lot," first-year head coach Ben Connot said. "I believe having the composure to handle adverse situations to give ourselves a chance will show what experience we have."

Colome's only loss was Oct. 6, falling to Class 9A No. 1 Corsica-Stickney 22-6 but Connot said the Avon win only helps to build confidence.

"Beating a team like Avon after coming off a loss a week ago to a great Corsica team proves to us that we can battle with some really good teams," he said.

The Cowboys weren't on the tips of many tongues entering the playoffs a season ago, and that's a scenario that would suit Colome just fine this season again.

"We know that no matter where you are seeded you will have to beat a few good teams to get to the championship," Connot said. "The two unbeaten teams that stand out right now are Sully Buttes and Colman-Egan. They have put up some great numbers and have beat some very good teams to show for it. We hope we can get a shot at them eventually and prove that we can play with them."

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