H From 1996 to 2007, any conversation about Class 11A football started and ended with West Central.
Rarely challenged and almost always victorious, the Trojans reeled off 10 state crowns over 12 years, including a six-peat in which they outscored opponents 238-41 at the DakotaDome.
In short, West Central carried the mantel of consistency, success and superiority for South Dakota football.
“It was electric. It was an expectation. It was something we were going to hang our hat on,” said West Central coach Kent Mueller, who has been with the program for 25 years and took the helm in 2004. “I think sometimes people forget just how deep that success ran – we were very successful in basketball and our track teams were doing very well. It permeated the entire school culture.”
Fast forward to the present, and the top-ranked Trojans (3-0) find themselves in a familiar position at the top of the ’11A’ scene, despite a brief absence from the limelight. With 18 seniors starting on either side of the ball, it would appear that West Central is again the focal point of the championship chatter.
But unlike the glory days, they’re not alone.
“I love the fact that people still think that we’re the team to beat, but you can make every argument that Madison could claim to be No. 1 right now because they beat (three-time defending state champion) Dell Rapids,” said Mueller, whose team visits the second-ranked Bulldogs (4-0) on Friday.
“If they want that, they’re going to have to take it, because we’re not going to give it to them.”
For as much as West Central meant to ’11A’ football for more than a decade, the program also became a rallying point for other teams looking to make the climb to the summit.
As Mueller put it, the mystique that was Trojan football faded little by little with each postseason loss, beginning with a first-round exit at the hands of Harrisburg in 2006 that put a stop to the title run and a 43-game win streak.
“Just that one crack,” Mueller said. “That first one we lost after the six-peat to Harrisburg. There’s that one crack. Dells, we beat them in overtime at their place during the regular season (in 2008) and they get us in the playoffs. There’s another crack.”
However, Mueller is quick to credit the growth of ’11A’ football, not in terms of the number of schools, but the quality of the teams in the upper tier, including a 2009 Sisseton team led by Ryan Toelle, who passed for a state-record 595 yards in a first-round win over the Trojans.
Dell Rapids took the reins with a state title in 2008 before putting together a three-peat behind standout Cole Langer, now at South Dakota State. Harrisburg has been a thorn for most teams in recent years with mobile quarterbacks Steven Miller and Andrew McCuen – each of whom led the Tigers to the finals as seniors.
The Trojans haven’t fared well against either rival lately, holding a five-game skid against the Quarriers and a 1-3 record against Harrisburg over the last three seasons.
“You’ve got two choices – you can sit there and whine about stuff or you can roll your sleeves up and go to work,” said Mueller of the ’11A’ transformation. “The teams that have been successful and have been roadblocks for us the last couple years, it’s because of that.”
Last season could have been the revival for West Central, but injuries sidelined three starters on both sides of the ball and saw the team grind out a 6-4 campaign that ended with a 35-13 quarterfinal thrashing at Harrisburg.
If nothing else, though, the season allowed for younger players to see the field as well as lay the groundwork for a team ready to push back this fall.
“Last year we had to go into some desperate moments due to injuries,” said senior quarterback Noah Matson. “Dell Rapids was a great team, Harrisburg was a great team, Madison was a pretty good team, so we had to try to do some stuff to throw them off. This year we figured out if we just execute and play how we need to play, we can compete with those teams.”
For some time now, the talk surrounding the Trojans’ success was along the lines of plugging players into the blueprint that brought them title after title.
In that sense, they haven’t strayed much from the ground-and-pound game, including this season with a three-pronged attack in the backfield between seniors Cody Miller and Cole Tirrel and junior Cody Bussell. The trio has combined for 10 rushing touchdowns through three games, with Miller leading the way in yards at 235 followed by Bussell (203) and Tirrel (131).
Each has found a way to lift West Central at some point on the young season. In a season-opening 49-6 win over Dakota Valley, Tirrel had a short touchdown run to go with a 41-yard interception return for a score.
Against Vermillion, Miller ran for 153 yards and a TD while Bussell and Tirrell each added two rushing scores in a 53-0 victory. Last week, Tirrel had three touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving, one punt return) and Bussell 71 yards and a score in a 51-6 rout of Lennox.
“Our three backs are carrying the main load,” said Matson. “They’re rushing forever, like they always do.”
Matson has also brings more to the offense, allowing the Trojans to attack through the air when they want to rather than when they have to. While he hasn’t had to lead many drives with his arm, the senior has thrown for 224 yards and five touchdowns to five different receivers. But the biggest difference has been the poise that comes as the result of offseason work and another year under center.
“He’s just more confident,” said Tirrel. “He’s taking control like a quarterback should do, which is different from past years where it’s been ‘hand it off and watch ’em go.’ “
Then there’s the matter of defense. Over three games, the Trojans have allowed just over 500 total yards and 12 total points while utilizing their speed and maturity to grab seven interceptions.
“Our team speed might be as good as it’s ever been,” said Mueller with a grin. “And that’s saying something.”
Battle for No. 1
Friday’s trip to Madison will be the first true test for the Trojans this season, and not just because of the No. 1 vs. 2 storyline.
The Bulldogs present a challenge in the form of a team playing on the same level, but also as a drastic difference in playing style with a spread offense and size advantage.
Senior running back Rush Milne has rushed for 11 touchdowns, including three in each of Madison’s last three games. Senior quarterback Jacob Giles has shown the ability to lead successful drives, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes for more than 600 yards and four touchdowns.
Meanwhile, senior Preston Nordling is a weapon in the open field with three return touchdowns (two punt, one interception) and a receiving TD. Mueller credited him with a ‘great football IQ.’
In other words, the Trojans are familiar with Madison’s weapons, but shutting each of them down will be a challenge.
“Giles is a great QB. Milne is fast, he’s big,” said Matson. “Their defense is good, too. Their middle linebacker, Tyler Currey, he’s a stud. It’s going to be a tough game. I’m excited for it and excited to see what happens.”
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are looking to make their case for the top team in ’11A’ following wins over Dell Rapids and Dakota Valley, both playoff teams from a year ago. To that end, having the Trojans in their backyard with No. 1 ranking on the line seems like a good time to notch their first win over West Central since 2003.
“There’s some excitement, some buzz,” said Madison coach Max Hodgen.”It’s exciting, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. It’s the fifth game of the season for us. It’s not a state championship. It doesn’t really matter what the rankings are right now, it’s how you finish in the end.”
While the finish is what counts, the matchup will give each side a better pulse for where they are and where they need to be. As far as the Trojans are concerned, there’s no other place than the top.
Tirrel served as a ball boy for the team growing up and saw what Trojan football meant in its prime, and helping return it to glory would be the perfect way to go out.
“Those championships, I was there from the second one to the sixth one, watching them hold that trophy and thinking, ‘One day I’ll be there,’ ” said the 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior. “I don’t know if I can say that we’re going to be there, but we’ve got a chance. We can make that run.”
Added Matson: “None of us will be content until we get that trophy back.”