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South Dakota Gridiron Report: Storylines to watch ahead of the state championships

A web-exclusive look at the top stories in high school football this week

South Dakota Gridiron Report

There are seven champions left to be crowned.

We’ve got one week to go in the South Dakota high school football season and the playoffs have flown by quickly. We’ve got three days of football ahead in the DakotaDome, which will be fun to analyze and enjoy.

Before we dive into the top storylines of Championship Week, a quick word about Friday’s great semifinals. There were 14 games played on Friday night and 10 of those were decided by eight points or less. There are plenty of blowouts in the opening rounds of the playoffs in all of the classes, so it’s a joy when the games that mean the most at the end of the season are the ones that live up to the hype. Hopefully we’ll see more of the same in Vermillion.

With that said, here’s a reminder about the championship schedule:

Thursday, Nov. 11

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  • Class 9B: No. 5 Dell Rapids St. Mary (7-3) vs. No. 3 Potter County (10-2), 10 a.m.

  • Class 9A: No. 2 Howard (11-0) vs. No. 1 Herreid/Selby Area (12-0), 1 p.m.

  • Class 9AA: No. 11 Canistota/Freeman (7-4) vs. No. 9 Platte-Geddes (9-2), 7:30 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 12

  • Class 11B: No. 7 Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan (8-3) vs. No. 1 Winner (11-0), 10 a.m.

  • Class 11A: No. 7 Milbank (8-3) vs. No. 1 Madison (11-0), 2 p.m.

  • Class 11AA: No. 3 Pierre (9-2) vs. No. 1 Tea Area (11-0), 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 13

  • Class 11AAA: No. 2 Brandon Valley (10-1) vs. No. 1 Harrisburg (11-0), 7:30 p.m.

Here’s a rundown of the topics we’ll be keeping an eye on this week:

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Action between Canistota/Freeman against Parkston during a Class 9AA semi-final game on Friday in Parkston. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

Preseason No. 1 and No. 2 meet in the end for Class 9AA

They may have taken unconventional routes to get to Vermillion, but the two favorites in the South Dakota prep football preseason media poll will play for the Class 9AA title Thursday evening at the DakotaDome. Platte-Geddes and Canistota/Freeman had fallen out of favor in the polls, as the Black Panthers were fifth and the Pride was receiving votes in the final poll ahead of the postseason, but proved the initial perceptions were spot-on.

Both No. 9 seed Platte-Geddes and No. 11 seed Canistota/Freeman won three-straight road games to reach the championship, each taking down two ranked opponents along the way. Platte-Geddes had a convincing 35-12 first round win over Chester Area, before grinding out its next two playoff games against top-seeded Hanson and No. 5 Timber Lake by a combined five points.

Canistota/Freeman was tested in the first round, squeaking by No. 6 Florence/Henry, 22-20. The Pride then went on to beat Ipswich in the second round 14-0 and survived at No. 2 seeded Parkston 24-20.

Adding to the intrigue of the No. 9 and 11 seed playing for the title is the fact that both programs are defending state champions and played one another to open the season on Aug. 20. Platte-Geddes won Class 9AA over Hamlin last season, while Canistota/Freeman took home its third-straight Class 9A title by shutting out Warner. In the regular-season meeting, Platte-Geddes emerged as 16-8 winners.

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Howard quarterback Taiden Hoyer throws a pass against Wall during a Class 9A semifinal on Nov. 5, 2021, in Howard. (Landon Dierks / Republic)

Twenty-three combined wins converge with No. 1 and No. 2 in Class 9A

One perfect season will remain alive after Thursday’s afternoon Class 9A matchup in the DakotaDome.

No. 1 Herreid/Selby Area and No. 2 Howard have combined for 23 wins, eight of them by 45 points or more. The Wolverines average 49 points per game, scoring 50 or more points in seven of its 12 wins. The Tigers defense through 11 games has held teams to under 100 yards rushing per outing and have only allowed 14 points or more three times this year.

Both teams fell one win shy of reaching the championship last season, as Howard lost to Class 9A champion Canistota/Freeman, 12-7, and Herreid/Selby Area lost to Class 9B champion Wolsey-Wessington 20-14.

This season, Herreid/Selby Area trounced Northwestern 50-6 in the first round, beat Castlewood 48-32 in the quarterfinals and squeezed by previously undefeated No. 4 De Smet in the semifinals ,16-14.

Howard outscored its opponents Kimball/White Lake and Wolsey-Wessington in the first two rounds 86-12. In the semifinals, the Tigers took down previously unbeaten Wall, 21-17.

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Harrisburg's Jacob Knuth carries the ball during the Class 11AAA championship game against Brandon Valley during the 2020 state football championship games at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (South Dakota Public Broadcasting photo)

Repeating meeting for Harrisburg, Brandon Valley in 11AAA

What will we see in the rematch between the top-two teams in Class 11AAA?

Harrisburg has been the undisputed No. 1 team in its class, especially since defeating Brandon Valley, 43-14, on Oct. 21 when both teams were 8-0 entering the game, which was Brandon Valley’s senior night and the Lynx’s lone loss on the year.

Harrisburg has had a few close games this season, including a 17-10 win over Sioux Falls Lincoln in Friday night’s semifinals. A championship win in the largest class would complete Harrisburg’s climb to the top of the South Dakota high school football ladder over the last decade. With a Harrisburg offense that averages 42 points per game, the onus will be on Brandon Valley to get some stops on defense.

The Lynx have stopped a surging Sioux Falls O’Gorman team in the semifinals on Friday in a 28-20 victory. They’re no stranger to this stage, making a fourth-straight 11AAA championship game appearance and looking for a third title in that span, including a 35-14 win over the Tigers in the championship finale last year.

Four of the last six Class 11AAA championship games have been decided by seven points or less and it wouldn’t be surprising if Harrisburg and Brandon Valley add to that list on Saturday night.

A much-awaited showdown in Class 11AA with Tea Area and Pierre

Class 11AA has danced around it all year but No. 1 Tea Area and No. 2 Pierre are going to lock horns in the state championship game.

The Titans have looked legit all year in their first foray in the higher level of football classification, with an offense that has rushed for nearly 2,800 yards and scored 43 touchdowns and a defense that has allowed just 16 total touchdowns (with only five on the ground). Tea Area is converting nearly 61% of its third downs this season and has a turnover margin of plus-16.

Pierre has powered its way to 35 points per game, led by standout quarterback Lincoln Kienholz, who has had a hand in 45 touchdowns this season (35 passing, 10 rushing). The Governors are the four-time defending champions in this class and represent the last obstacle for Tea Area to assert its dominance in this class in 2021.

Finishing with a flourish in Class 9B

Dell Rapids St. Mary and Potter County are proof of the old adage: it’s not how you start but how you finish.

Both teams lost their opening games, including Dell Rapids St. Mary falling by 36 in the season opener on their home field after being the preseason No. 1 in the class.

Meanwhile, the Battlers lost by 18 points to Faulkton Area in the season opener at home. But Potter County got its proper revenge on Friday night in a 22-12 victory over the Trojans.

In the end, No. 3 Potter County and No. 5 Dell Rapids St. Mary will play in the state championship game, which leads off the action at 10 a.m. Thursday. This was the class that appeared to be toughest to rank for the first half of the season, so it’s fitting that the teams that have reached the Dome are ones that have faced adversity and have multiple losses on their ledger.

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The Winner High School football team celebrates a touchdown during a Class 11B playoff football semifinal Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 in Winner. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

The old guard meets again in 11B with BEE and Winner

For teams that are 130 miles apart, could two squads know each other any better?

Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan and Winner will play for the third straight season in the Class 11B championship game, with the two teams splitting the previous matchups. The Seahawks won 21-14 in 2019 and last year’s title game was 18-14 in favor of the Warriors.

Winner defeated BEE 44-0 in the second week of the season earlier this year, putting down the foundation for the rematch. The Warriors have been dominant all season, averaging 52.5 points per game and allowing eight points per contest. BEE has surged in the postseason to get back to Vermillion. Both teams run similar, run-oriented offenses and boast tough-minded defenses, setting up for what should be an interesting matchup once again.

Since 2015, either Winner or Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan has been in every Class 11B title game. It speaks to how strong and consistent the two programs have been.

Game balls

It’s time for a semifinal edition of Gridiron Report game balls:

  • Tea Area’s Cael Lundin had a hand in five touchdowns Friday night — four passing and one rushing — accounting for 225 passing yards in the 35-28 Titans’ win over Yankton in the Class 11AA semifinals.

  • Nate Ricke had more than 400 yards of total offense to help Madison to the Class 11A championship game. He rushed 30 times for 235 yards and a touchdown, plus was 13 of 24 passing for 187 yards and a touchdown. Teammate Trey Smith had three rushing touchdowns for the Bulldogs.

  • Dell Rapids St. Mary’s Nic Gaspar finished with 300 yards of total offense, with 204 rushing yards on 18 carries, plus 96 yards on three catches in a three-touchdown performance, helping the Cardinals get back to the Class 9B championship game.

  • The passing connection of Tage Ortman and Will Ortman powered Canistota/Freeman to the Class 9AA championship game. Will Ortman caught two touchdown passes from Tage Ortman as part of a five-catch, 113-yard game, bringing him to 12 touchdown catches this season.

  • How about the Milbank defense? For a third week in a row, the Bulldogs have pitched a shutout, including a 24-0 blanking of Vermillion on Friday. Milbank held their opponent to 166 total yards, including 54 rushing yards and forced three turnovers. Connor Bender had an interception and Evan Hausauer and Garrett Mertens each had fumble recoveries. Since playing Madison on Sept. 17 in a 9-0 loss, Milbank has not allowed more than 15 points in a game, winning seven straight games.

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Branden is a sports reporter that graduated from Purdue University Northwest with a bachelor's degree in communications and a focus in journalism. He joined the Mitchell Republic in June 2021 and covers prep and collegiate athletics. He was also the lead on the Mitchell Republic Full-Court Press, providing a weekly web-exclusive look at high school basketball throughout all of South Dakota. Branden can be reached at bhull@mitchellrepublic.com and found on Twitter at @bhullreports.
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