West Central outlasts Beresford in 11A semifinal, punches ticket to DakotaDome
In a back-and-forth, 24-20 victory, West Central and quarterback Justin Zirpel were able to come out on top in a battle of potent rushing attacks. The Trojans will face Dell Rapids in the 11A state championship on Nov. 11.
HARTFORD, S.D. — On two consecutive fourth downs, as West Central High School strangled the final three minutes from the scoreboard to ice a four-point lead, everybody in the stadium knew who was getting the ball.
And both times, Justin Zirpel, the senior quarterback for the Trojans, took a snap from the pistol and lurched forward, employing his wrestling background to get his pads nearly horizontal to the turf and gain the one yard needed.
“Coach understands, it’s my last game on this field,” Zirpel said of the decision to give him the ball on nearly every play of the final drive. “I’m gonna want every inch that I can get.”
And, taking one final knee, Zirpel and West Central took down the Beresford Watchdogs 24-20, capping off a back-and-forth 11A semifinal between the second and third seeds in the bracket.
“We knew this was going to be a battle,” Chris Hernandez, the West Central head coach, told his team in the huddle after the game. “That team is a good team. They run the ball, they’re tough, but you guys stayed with it and kept believing.”
West Central started on the right foot, receiving the kick and marching 65 yards for a score, with Zirpel, running back Jesse Jost and running back Aiden Bartmann each making contributions, capped off with a short Zirpel run for the first score. Zirpel, Jost and Bartmann finished with rushing totals of 86, 52 and 77 on the day, respectively.
After a short three-and-out and punt by Beresford, the game threatened to get out of hand early as West Central was driving again. However, a high snap over Zirpel’s head lost 17 yards, and the Trojans were forced to punt, leaving Beresford a long field after downing the kick at the 2.
The Watchdogs started the drive by ripping off runs of 34 and 37 yards, eventually scoring on a dive to running back Jaxson Tadlock to cap off an impressive 6-play, 98-yard drive.
In the second quarter, each team notched one more touchdown, first a 15-yard scamper by Jost and then, as time expired on the half, a 6-yard sweep by Stemen.
Throughout the night, Beresford gave the Trojans trouble with their option offense featuring running back Jack Stemen, quarterback Tate VanOtterloo and Tadlock, an offensive guard who made the switch to fullback this year.
On the night, Stemen ran for 89 yards and Tadlock added 68 of his own, although the bulk of these numbers came in the first half.
“We had to make some adjustments, just not lining up correctly, not seeing their formation strengths,” Hernandez said about the second-half defensive effort. “But a lot of it was just ‘Hey, it’s a big game, we have to take these guys on.’”
The second half started slower; Beresford received the kick and marched down the field, but the West Central defense made a fourth down stop to keep them out of the end zone.
After punts on each team’s next drive, West Central was given great field position by a poor punt, and Zirpel punched in a short run to finish a three-play, 25-yard drive near the end of the third quarter.
Beresford continued to struggle, and, with 5:22 left in the game, the run-heavy team received the ball in a clear passing situation, down 24-14 with a long field ahead of them. In a heroic march to keep their season alive, VanOtterloo threw for two long fourth downs, the second a 30-yard hook-and-ladder touchdown to Stemen.
With 3:30 left in the game, the Watchdogs were unsuccessful on their onside kick attempt. They wouldn’t see the ball again.
The clutch first downs to close the game were a bit of redemption for Zirpel. His sophomore year, he was kept out of the endzone from the one-yard line on the final play of a 14-6 playoff loss to Canton. He says that play has been in the back of his mind since.
“It was right there and I couldn’t finish,” Zirpel said. “So every first down, every time I’m near the end zone, I finish through that line. I just learned a lot from that experience.”
The senior-heavy Trojans, now 10-1 on the year, move on to the 11A state championship to take on the undefeated Dell Rapids, who beat Sioux Falls Christian 44-26. The top two seeds in 11A will meet in the DakotaDome on Nov. 11.
“This summer, seniors, you guys said you wanted your last game in the dome,” Hernandez said to close the team’s huddle. “I am so proud of you guys. Enjoy it and we’ve got to get ready for another one.”