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Cornbelt clash: Tigers, Pride meet in the 9A state championship game

Howard's Isaac Feldhaus (12) dives at the legs of Canistota/Freeman's Austin Thu (25) for the tackle during a nine-man game on Aug. 24 in Howard. (Matt Gade / Republic)

VERMILLION—The Cornbelt Conference has taken over Class 9A football, putting nine-man football powers No. 4 Canistota/Freeman and No. 6 Howard in the state championship game at 10 a.m. today in the DakotaDome.

While this is the first time Canistota/Freeman (10-1) has made the state championship game as a co-op, Canistota has won four state titles—three in 9A and one in 9B—since 2010 and the Tigers (8-3) won it all in 2014. That's led to a mutual respect between the programs, especially between coaches with a long history.

"(Canistota/Freeman coach James) Strang is one of my former players. I was a defensive coordinator up in Waverly-South Shore, so James played under me for a couple years," Howard coach Pat Ruml said. "It's a pretty good chess match when it comes down to us playing them. We kind of know what each other are going to do, yet there's always a twist in there."

It was a one-sided chess match on Aug. 24 when Canistota/Freeman ran away with a 36-12 victory.

Strang said his team coasted in the second half after it took a 36-0 lead into halftime. As a result, the Pride feel it has "some leftover business from that game," according to Strang.

Howard also rewatched that game, but for a different reason.

"We actually watched it so I could show the kids what not to do," Ruml said.

What the Tigers hope to do this time around is contain the Pride's three-headed rushing attack in Austin Thu (1,304 rushing yards/21 touchdowns), Bailey Sage (563/8) and quarterback Trey Ortman (729/14), who has also thrown for 1,452 yards and 19 touchdowns.

His go-to targets this season have been Tyce Ortman (581 receiving yards/7 touchdowns) and Tristan Pierce (295/6).

While Trey Ortman threw and ran all over the Tigers earlier in the season, this hasn't looked like the same Howard defense over the past two weeks. EJ Leetch (64 tackles, 11 sacks, two interceptions), Paul Winker (50 tackles) and Isaac Schwab (32 tackles) have led a defense which held No. 2 Britton-Hecla and No. 3 Warner to a combined 15 points.

"Realistically, I think our defense got tired of hearing how they weren't playing so well and how they were giving up so many yards," Ruml said. "... Our whole defense has really seemed like they rose to the occasion. I think they're really excited about how they're playing right now."

To stop the Pride this time, it could come down to the battle in the trenches, as Strang said effective blocking has led to a lot of his offense's success.

The Pride will also have to win the battle up front to stop Howard's power run game which has produced 2,023 yards and 34 touchdowns this season between Zach Pardy (1,276 rushing yards/16 touchdowns), Michael Hofer (1,016/11) and Gavin Ericksen-Reisdorfer (731/7).

"Our biggest thing is we like to get all three going, and from there, see which one has the hot hand and pick out the best one," Ruml said.

Strang knows stopping Howard's run game for a second time won't be easy, though. However, the Pride are only giving up 13.3 points per game in the postseason and were the only team in the regular season to hold the Tigers to one 50-yard rusher.

The Pride defense is led by Pierce (89 tackles), Thu (86 tackles) and Jared Tieszen (7.5 tackles for loss).

"Our D-Line needs to play well against Howard," Strang said. "I look for them to be the difference makers as far as setting the tempo and making sure our secondary is in a strong position when they go to play-action pass."

Despite both coaches having a state championship, neither team has made it this far the past two seasons. Whoever can shake off the nerves will have an early advantage, according to Strang.

"I think there's a mutual appreciation for the way both schools play the game of football, and we're both Cornbelt Conference schools," Strang said. "So it's a pretty powerful thing that we can get two Cornbelt teams to the state championship game in 9A."