SAUK RAPIDS — This has been the year, Matt Johnson said, that Sauk Rapids football has been put back on the competitive map.
After enduring a 22-game losing streak, the Storm opened the season with a 31-20 win over Princeton and has since added victories over St. Cloud Tech, St. Cloud Apollo and Willmar.
Sauk Rapids has won three out of its last four games and brings a 4-4 record into its Section 6-5A playoff game at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Elk River.
“It’s been a good year,” Johnson said. “It’s just great to say we’ve finally proved we are here to play and not lose every game.
“Everyone’s been doubting us all year and we’ve proved them wrong by going 4-4 in the regular season.”
It’s Sauk Rapids’ best regular season since 2010, when the Storm won their last section championship.
One big reason has been Johnson. The senior quarterback/defensive back had one of the best fourth quarters in coach Bill Magnuson’s 15 seasons as Sauk Rapids head coach.
Last Thursday, the Storm scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to overcome a 14-6 deficit. Johnson had a hand in all three.
He threw touchdown passes to Tyler Kranz and Koby Thielen and then had a 37-yard interception return for a score.
“He stepped it up in the fourth quarter,” Magnuson said.
The success has come despite a number of key players going down to injury, including two-way starters in running back Korey Keske and lineman Richard Carriveau, who are two of the Storm’s best.
“It seems like someone goes down every game,” Johnson said. “We seem to find new guys.
“We have guys playing positions no one ever thought they’d play. We’ve got freshmen playing and I never thought I’d see that. I can’t wait to see those guys play in a couple of years.”
Johnson started defensively last year and is one of the few quarterbacks in the North Central District Red Division playing both ways and on special teams.
“For us, it’s all hands on deck,” Magnuson said. “With the configuration of our roster we have to play our blue-chips as much as we can.”
Johnson is also a fine baseball shortstop who is interested in continuing his career in college. But he wouldn’t rule out football. He’s interested in a possible sports management major.
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For now, though, the focus is on Elk River.
“Elk River is a very good football team that plays in a very good district,” Magnuson said. “They remind me of our 2010 team. They play smash-mouth football.
“They’ve only thrown 50 passes all year. And they’ve reached that total even though they’ve been behind in some games. They run the ball and they come right at you. It’s a big challenge for our team and I’m excited about it.”
Johnson has also watched video of Elk River, which runs the Delaware Wing-T offense.
“They’re really quick with it and sometimes it’s real hard to see the ball and where it’s going,” Johnson said. “What’ll be key is keeping your eyes out of the backfield and staying with your man.
“And then every once in a while they pop a pass just to keep you off-guard.”
Either way, Johnson is enthused.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said.
Third-seeded Rocori (5-3) opens Section 8-4A play against sixth-seeded Little Falls (2-6) at 7 p.m.Tuesday in Cold Spring.
Spartans head coach Mike Rowe is impressed by what he sees of the Flyers on video.
“They have good size and a nice team,” he said. “They’ve lost a lot of close games and they have a new coaching staff.
“They do some things really, really well.”
Among the Flyers’ losses are state-ranked Detroit Lakes (21-14), New London-Spicer (14-7), Zimmerman (16-6) and Foley (23-22). Rowe said their large offensive and defensive linemen are a concern.
“They’re big, probably very big for the (district) they are in,” he said. “We’ll have our hands full.”
Tigers head to Monticello
Third-seeded Monticello (7-1) has one of its best teams and will be a difficult challenge for sixth-seeded St. Cloud Tech (3-5), Tigers head coach Gregg Martig said.
The teams play at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the first round of the Section 6-5A playoffs.
“They’re big up front, probably the biggest team we’ve played,” Martig said.
The lineman to watch is Conner Olson. He plays offensive tackle and defensive end. He’s a 6-foot-5, 288-pound senior who has committed to Minnesota.
“They’re very similar to Bemidji in style,” Martig said. “They run the ball right at you.”
Tech has had numerous injuries to contend with all season. Four starters were out in the season-closing 33-15 loss to Alexandria. Martig said the Tigers had 10 players on the sidelines because of injuries last week.
Becker two-way lineman Dillon Radunz recently gave a verbal commitment to North Dakota State. He’s a 6-6, 270-pound tackle/defensive end who was one of the key defensive players last season in Becker’s state Class 4A championship squad.
Radunz also considered Wyoming, South Dakota State and South Dakota.
Radunz also has helped anchor one side of Becker’s offensive line this season with Casey Vesledahl, who also is receiving Division I recruiting interest.
Vesledahl is 6-4, 285, and recently visited South Dakota State. He also is being recruited by St. Cloud State and Southwest Minnesota State.
Second-seeded Becker (8-0) has a first-round bye in Section 6-4A. The Bulldogs play the winner of No. 6 Dassel-Cokato (2-6) and No. 3 Zimmerman (6-2). Those two play at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Zimmerman.
Becker will host the winner at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Orono (8-0) got the No. 1 seed.
Follow Tom Elliott on Twitter @sctimestom or call 259-3661.