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Winner seeks back-to-back titles

VERMILLION--The road back to the DakotaDome hasn't been the easiest for the Winner Warriors. Nevertheless, the Warriors have embraced the challenge and the pressure that has surrounded the Class 11B powerhouse since they claimed the 2015 state ch...

Winner's Drew DeMers, right, runs the ball as Bridgwater-Emery/Ethan's Carter Dye, left, tries to chase him during a Class 11B semifinal on Saturday in Winner. (Eric Mayer/Republic)
Winner's Drew DeMers, right, runs the ball as Bridgwater-Emery/Ethan's Carter Dye, left, tries to chase him during a Class 11B semifinal on Saturday in Winner. (Eric Mayer/Republic)
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VERMILLION-The road back to the DakotaDome hasn't been the easiest for the Winner Warriors.

Nevertheless, the Warriors have embraced the challenge and the pressure that has surrounded the Class 11B powerhouse since they claimed the 2015 state championship and only lost six players from that team.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say their was a ton of expectations on this team," Winner head coach Dan Aaker said after his team's 38-13 semifinal win over Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan. "A lot of it was lifted (on Saturday). We're extremely excited for us, the school and the community to get back to the Dome again this year and we want to play really well down there again this year."

Standing in No. 1 Winner's way of achieving back-to-back state championships is No. 2 Groton Area. The Warriors (11-0) will take on the Tigers (10-1) in the Class 11B title game at 1 p.m. today in Vermillion.

The two teams faced each other in last year's semifinals, with Winner pulling out a 39-0 win and Groton Area head coach Shaun Wanner said the Warriors pose a plethora of challenges.

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"Everything. They're big, they're fast, they can run, they can throw," Wanner said about what Winner does. "All the (Class 11B) coaches knew Winner would be on top with 19 seniors returning. We just wanted to play them in the last game, there's no pressure on us."

Groton Area's lone loss this season came against Parkston 34-14 in the last game of the regular season. The very next week, Winner defeated Parkston 52-0 in the first round of the playoffs.

Wanner admitted his team struggles with "powerful teams" and stopping Winner's offensive and defensive lines will be an issue for the Tigers.

"That's going to be a problem for us," Wanner said. "They're gonna pound, pound, pound then catch you on a deep pass. You can do all you want, but if you can't stop it, you can't stop it. We have some speed and we're going to take some chances."

Aaker said his team will need to play stronger up front than it did against the Seahawks, who outgained the Warriors 294-226 and "neutralized" the line of scrimmage.

"We have to play well up front," Aaker said. "We'll have to challenge our guys up front and we'll rotate guys in and out."

The Winner offense is led by its rushing attack, which features four players with more than 40 carries this season. Cameron Kuil leads the way with 65 carries for 878 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Kayleb Brozik adds 545 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Quarterback Drew DeMers orchestrates the offense and has completed 30 of 45 passes for 618 yards and 10 touchdowns and added the Warriors need to play their style against the Tigers.

"We need to keep doing what we've been doing," DeMers said. "We'll need to stay a little more composed, but keep doing the same thing."

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Winner's defense has only allowed 35 points all season and just 13 points in the postseason, but Aaker said Groton Area's offense will be a different challenge for the Warriors.

"A lot of formations and a lot of good skill athletes," Aaker said about Groton Area's offense. "Their quarterback is back and they're top receiver is lightning fast. We're going to have to do a good job of trying to contain those guys."

The Tiger offense is run by Bennett Shabazz, who has completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,144 yards and 15 touchdowns. The dual-threat senior quarterback adds 873 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.

"We present some problems with our passing game and special teams," Wanner said. "We are going to spread them out and get Bennett in open space. We have some great receivers."

New to the Tiger offense is running back Travon Tuggles, who transferred from Spokane, Washington. Tuggles has helped take pressure of Shabazz and has 85 carries for 659 yards and 14 touchdowns.

"He really added a dimension to our offense," Wanner said. "This is a little bit different team than the one that played Winner a year ago."

South Dakota State University commit Krockett Krolikowski anchors the Winner defense and has recorded a team-high 16.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks this season. He's one of 39 returning letterwinners that was on the field for Winner's 45-6 win over Tri-Valley last year.

"It'll help, because most of these guys are back," Aaker said about his team's experience. "We won't be shell-shocked down there and I feel comfortable with our team."

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