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Class 11B's best in Winner, EPJ meet to decide state title

Top-seeded Winner will go for a third consecutive state championship when they take on Elk Point-Jefferson in a game is set for 2:30 p.m. Friday in the DakotaDome.

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Winner's Aiden Barfuss (18) pushes back Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan's Sutton Arend (7) during a high school football game on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Bridgewater.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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WINNER, S.D. — It’s the dynasty against the new dogs in the Class 11B state championship game on Friday.

Top-seeded Winner will go for a third consecutive state championship when they take on Elk Point-Jefferson in a game is set for 2:30 p.m. in the DakotaDome.

They’re the two best teams on paper in Class 11B football this year, both standing at 11-0 records. And despite Winner’s dominance and the fact that it is going for a 35th consecutive win on Friday, the two teams have shared plenty in common to this point, with talented offenses, tough defenses and dominance on the field over their first 11 games.

That could make Friday’s game a far cry from the 52-14 Winner victory at Warrior Field in the 2021 state semifinals over EPJ, Winner coach Trent Olson said. As he described it to his players after the 46-6 win over McCook Central/Montrose in this year’s semifinals, EPJ is the “biggest hill to climb” yet this season.

“(Last year), they were very young and they made the semis,” Olson said. “They graduated almost nobody and they brought the whole crew back. You watch them on tape and it’s obvious how good they are.”

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EPJ has Class 11B’s top scoring offense (48.1 points per game) and allows just 4.5 points per contest, best in class on defense, as well. EPJ allowed only 28 points in eight regular season games and has yielded only 21 points total in three playoff games, with only one game this season finishing relatively close, a 14-point win at Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan on Oct. 14.

For the season, Winner is averaging 313 yards per game rushing, which accounts for more than 90% of the team’s offensive yards for the season.

Running backs Ben Swatek and Lucas Hueser are the primary rushers for EPJ, with each rushing for more than 800 yards and 10-plus touchdowns (Hueser has 22 rushing scores on the year.) Quarterback Noah McDermott has thrown for 18 touchdowns and has been sharp in the playoffs, throwing five touchdowns on 21-for-29 passing and 475 yards, throwing to Hunter Geary, Alex Scarmon and Devon Schmitz as primary targets. The Huskies have never won a state football championship but under coach Jake Terry, EPJ has climbed out of a five-year rut in the mid-2010s in which they won four games in five seasons to now winning 25 games since the start of the 2020 season.

“They’re fast, they’re athletic, they’ve got talent,” Olson said. “The style they play is really effective.”

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Winner's Karson Keiser carries the ball in a high school football game against Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at Bridgewater.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

On the Winner side of the matchup, the Warriors look like they’re more than capable of adding to their title trophy case once again. Aiden Barfuss leads a rushing attack that is racking up 313 yards per game on the ground, with 988 yards and 18 touchdowns. He rushed for 126 yards and was the Joe Robbie MVP in last year’s 40-8 win over BEE in the championship game, a contest where Winner rushed for nearly eight yards a carry and racked up 369 yards on the ground.

Riley Orel has rushed for 769 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 66 carries for the year and Karson Keiser has rushed for 461 yards and five scores on 40 carries. Blake Volmer has thrown for 10 passing touchdowns for Winner, plus scored six times on the ground and rushed for 314 yards.

“We have a lot of experience, a lot of people who started there last year and a lot of guys there,” Volmer said. “We are taking on a really good opponent, so we’ll have to be ready.”

The experience cannot be undersold for the Warriors, who have the second Friday in November circled each year to make the three-hour drive east to the DakotaDome. It is the fifth time in the last seven years Winner has played in the final game of the Class 11B season.

The story continues below.

“There’s no kid on the high school team that hasn’t played in the state championship game every year of their career. (When we beat MCM), there wasn’t a big celebration, they weren’t going crazy. They do this every year. I’m not worried about them, or the lights being too bright. It’s how we end every season and it’s business as usual.”

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In last year’s semifinal game, Winner gained 451 yards and rushed on 50 of its 54 offensive plays, pounding out 380 yards on the ground. EPJ had only seven first downs and 163 yards, and the Warriors would certainly take a replay of how that game went once again in pursuit of the school’s 10th state championship.

“We’re locked in,” Volmer said. “We’re focused. … We want it, we want it bad. Every game, we’re showing how much we want it.”

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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