The season has cast Madison as a Class 11A heavyweight and so far the Bulldogs, who are new to the role, have handled the strain of that pretty well.
The undefeated top-ranked squad has often in the past looked up – sometimes way up – to nearby teams from Dell Rapids and West Central in this class of high school football, but this year is different.
The Bulldogs, who have never played in an 11A championship game, are 8-0 with regular-season wins over both the perennial contenders. Dell Rapids has won four of the last five 11A titles and West Central, this year ranked No. 2, has won 10 since 1996. Between the two, then, they’ve taken care of 14 of the last 17 11A titles.
“We have had a lot of success in basketball at this school and we have a lot of those players on our football team,” said Madison coach Max Hodgen, in his fourth season with the Bulldogs. “They understand the pressure of the playoffs. But as a football team, we’re in uncharted waters. To their credit, they’ve looked at the schedule and focused on the next game. Being No. 1 doesn’t mean anything in the middle of the season -it’s where you are at the finish.”
Madison opens in Region 1 against Milbank Area (7-1). Rush Milne leads the offense with more than 900 yards rushing and Jacob Giles has thrown for more than 1,200 yards for the Bulldogs, who were seriously challenged twice this year, winning three-point games in successive weeks over West Central and Tea Area. The win over West Central, in particular, meant a lot to bolster the Bulldogs’ confidence.
“We needed a couple first downs at the end to lock that one down and we got them by passing the ball,” Hodgen said. “We probably surprised a few people when we did that, including our own fans. The Tea game also gave us a big boost. It was the only time we trailed all year and we handled it pretty well.”
After losing to Madison, the Trojans, who were sorting out some injury-related lineup changes at the time, got shut out 23-0 by Class 11B title contender Canton. They have since defeated Dell Rapids, Milbank and Tea Area by a combined score of 136-16.
“Right now our offensive line is playing scary good,” said West Central coach Kent Mueller. “They’re getting off the ball very well and our backs aren’t very big, but they’re quick, they have decent speed and they run hard. Jim Uttecht (offensive coordinator) has really done a great job with them. We’ve made huge strides offensively.”
As evidence, the Trojans can offer the work of Cody Miller, Cody Bussell and Cole Tirrel as evidence. Miller (475 yards), Bussell (536) and Tirrel (611) are all averaging more than six yards a carry.
West Central is the top seed in Region 3, which makes for an odd geographical first-round matchup with Cheyenne-Eagle Butte (2-6).
Class 11A teams are re-seeded 1-through-8 in the second round based on power points, which would likely mean the Trojans would face a more familiar foe if they defeat Cheyenne-Eagle Butte.
“It’s definitely a little different because we don’t have a lot of information on the team we’re playing,” Mueller said of starting out in Region 3. “Plus you have so much shorter time to prepare for that next team.”
Hot Springs (7-1), the second-seeded team in 11A based on power points, will sit out this first-round game with a win by forfeit over Little Wound, which cited injuries in deciding not to continue on with a playoff game.
Dell Rapids (6-2), which plays Sisseton (2-6) tonight, would be the fourth-seeded second-round team based on power points if the top three all advance.
On paper, they’re all chasing Madison right now.
“I think the difference with Madison this year is that they play like they really believe they can win,” Mueller said.
11B: Tough road for title contenders
The list of potential Class 11B state champions is a long one. Defending champion Winner (8-0) would be the top-seeded team in the second round, but there are a host of other squads that appear capable of advancing to the DakotaDome.
“Without question there are six or seven teams that could win it if they put together some strong efforts,” said Winner coach Dan Aaker.
“I’d say it’s the most exciting class this year because there are so many good teams. Our first-round game against Bon Homme is an example – that’s a tough game for anybody. It’s good for South Dakota football though, and that’s great to see.”
No. 1 Aberdeen Roncalli is also undefeated, with one-loss teams Canton, St. Thomas More, Bennett County and Parkston all with more than 52 power points.
“You could see some upsets right away,” said Canton coach Rich Lundstrom. “But the top teams look pretty evenly matched. It’s going to be about playing your best down the stretch.”
Winner did just that last year, toppling Flandreau and Tri-Valley in successive games to win the 11B title. The Warriors returned this year with an offense that centers around Trace Meyer, a standout player from the title team who has rushed for more than 860 yards, with a nine-yard per carry average. He’s also been a force at linebacker.
“We lost a lot of talented players from the state title team,” Aaker said. “Going into the season we did not have an identity – we’ve been led by the defense all year, particularly the front seven. Offensively, it’s been a work in progress but they’ve gotten better each week.”
Canton lost only to Parkston during the regular season and has posted shutouts in four of its last five games. That run included a 23-0 shutout of 11A No. 2 West Central.
“We’ve been able to run the ball pretty well and defensively we’ve been able to put a lot of pressure on the other team’s quarterback,” Canton coach Rich Lundstrom said. “Both lines are playing pretty well and the backs are blocking well for the other backs.”
Gabe Dolen has 96 rushes for 626 yards, Jake Ablett 67 for 554, Cody Majeres 74 for 499 and Tanner Broughton 59 for 389.
“We didn’t overlook anybody,” Lundstrom said. “I really appreciated that with this team. After they beat West Central they still went about their business, doing what they needed to do.”