Few expected Mitchell High School's football team to leave Pierre with a win in Thursday’s Class 11AA quarterfinals.
The Kernels entered the game having lost six games in a row, some in gut-wrenching fashion and the last three by more than 22 points per game. It would have been easy -- and not uncommon for a team in that position -- to throw up the white flag and put an end to the season as quickly as possible.
But that is not what happened and it needs to be the spark that moves the Kernels from the middle of the pack to the upper echelon of Class 11AA going forward.
Yes, Mitchell lost another heartbreaker, 34-27, after leading in the fourth quarter, but the Kernels showed no signs of the downtrodden squad that limped off the field in the regular season finale against Huron.
Instead of folding, the Mitchell coaching staff implemented a new offensive scheme and made adjustments on defense and the players responded. There were signs of the Kernel team that began the season 3-0.
“Our guys had something to prove, they had football left in them and they wanted to put together a football game that was memorable,” MHS head coach Kent Van Overschelde said. “When you have an opportunity to compete, you give 100% effort and it’s no excuses, no regrets. Our guys came ready and battled.”
After a few weeks of being worn down by opponents or collapsing under a mound of miscues, Mitchell seemed to have an answer every time Pierre seemed to be gaining momentum, until finally running out of steam after Lincoln Kienholz and Aaron Booth connected for two touchdown passes late in the fourth quarter.
Losing a playoff game, particularly after leading for the majority of the night is devastating. Close, season-ending losses have a tendency to gnaw at players and coaches, as they search for what could have changed the outcome.
Unfortunately, seniors have to live with that loss until their next interest or sport comes along. Underclassmen, however, can work to ensure it does not happen again and that will be the key heading into the 2021 season.
“Sports are a small part of someone’s life, but the memories and lessons you learn last a lifetime,” Van Overschelde said. “I think there were plays in there that will last a lifetime. For those underclassmen, seeing that performance should be great motivation.”
While Mitchell did not beat the three-time defending champions, that momentary glimpse of success can carry over into next season, especially after its 27 points surpass the 21 total points scored in the previous three playoff losses.
After all, quick turnarounds are often customary in Class 11AA football. Brookings has reached the semifinals for the third consecutive year and is on the cusp of back-to-back trips to the state finals after going 6-23 in the previous three seasons. Huron is also in the semifinals for the third year in a row, following more than a decade of losing seasons. It's also likely that the class will be shaken up and have more teams in 2021, depending on how the South Dakota High School Activities Association determines to set up its football classifications.
But for the Kernels, next year’s success hinges upon whether the feeling of having something to prove was satisfied or still burns following Thursday’s loss.
“That fear of regret is something we talk about,” Van Overschelde said. “The last thing you want is having any regret in the effort you put forth. We try to focus on that process rather than the outcomes and that’s a hard sell sometimes. The best learning tool is self-reflection and having that perspective.”