What follows is a look back at the weekend that was in high school football. Apologies to the Yankton-Pierre followers — I didn’t report that game. Leftovers from the 11AAA title still to follow.
Seven high school championship games came and went in a weekend where the DakotaDome also played host to the state’s ultimate battle of Red vs. Blue.
It was a mixed bag in terms of competition. The Class 9B, 9A and 11B title games were one-sided, the 9AA was competitive until late, and the remaining 11-man slate produced back-and-forth dogfights and down-to-the-wire finishes.
The blowouts were at least offset by some extraordinary individual performances.
Jerad Nielsen stoked Canistota’s big-play offense with 15 carries for 255 yards and three touchdowns in a 56-8 rout of Sully Buttes. The senior running back piled up 150 of those on two long touchdown runs (of 60 and 90 yards). Who knows the total damage he could have done with 10 more touches.
Wolsey-Wessington’s Hunter Johnson huffed and puffed his way to a state-record 303 yards on 31 carries as the Warbirds enacted revenge on Woonsocket/Wessington Springs/Sanborn Central in the ‘9AA’ championship. The Blackhawks handed W-W its only loss of the season when the teams met Oct. 16.
Johnson’s record stood for less than 24 hours. Langford Area’s Lincoln Gibbs was a threat to score on seemingly every play and finished with 26 carries for 350 yards and six touchdowns. The majority of Gibbs’s big gains came running behind linemen Jordan Carson and Brady Wieker. Carson stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds, while Wieker is 6-2, 245, and the two were a tandem wrecking crew for the Lions all season. When Gibbs got to the second level of Harding County’s defense, which was often, the senior running back was unstoppable.
Winner: Best team of 2015?
Make no mistake about it: This was a down year for Class 11B. In fact, 14 of the 23 teams in the field sported .500-or-worse records, not to mention 2014 runner-up St. Thomas More moved up to ‘11A’. Class 11A, by comparison, had its playoff field of eight combine for a 114-12 regular season record, and a 6-3 Hot Springs team didn’t even qualify.
The ‘11B’ championship game pitted teams with wildly different roads to the Dome. Tri-Valley played the majority of its schedule a class up against the likes of West Central, Sioux Falls Christian and Lennox. All were close games, and those teams went on to the semifinals, and the Trojans nearly won it all. The Mustangs finished as battle-tested a 4-4 team that ever existed.
Winner played the role of frontrunner and bully, outscoring opponents in the regular season 414-20 — that’s not a typo — but in truth the Warriors never had much in the way of competition. Even when they did — ripping 7-2 Chamberlain 52-6 and blanking 5-3 Parkston 43-0 — the result was one-sided.
Friday’s championship was no different. Through the air or on the ground, Winner had its way with the Mustangs to the tune of 510 yards of offense and 45 points. Defensively, the Warriors gave up a single score — the first the team surrendered since Sept. 25 — and limited Tri-Valley to just 139 yards.
What’s more, no one player stole the limelight. Winner’s dominance was cumulative. Against a team in Tri-Valley that hung with programs that feast on 11B schools as if they were chum, Winner looked like it showed up at the wrong game.
I picked Tri-Valley to win. I had no idea how good Winner would be. It only took 48 minutes of game clock, but now I do. Relative to its class and competition, that’s the best team I watched all season.
Madison holds off ‘Razzle-dazzle’ Trojans in a classic
No risk of overusing the word classic here. One-loss West Central, the most successful program ever in ‘11A’, against a Madison team making its third-straight trip to the Dome and seeking its first state title. Dakota XII Conference rivals. Muscle and grit vs. dynamic athleticism.
The Bulldogs’ ability to disrupt the fronts was key in Madison racing to a 21-0 lead. Marcus VandenBosch appeared to have added bulk to the 6-foot-1, 188-pound frame he’s credited with on the SDHSAA activities website. Or he’s about as strong as a person can be for that size. Either way, West Central had no answer for him off the edge early on. With two of the state’s premier guards in Hunter Hanley and Bryce Edberg, the Trojans couldn’t get anything going until late in the third quarter when they moved Hanley to right tackle to take on VandenBosch.
The junior defensive end earned Outstanding Lineman honors, while split end Mason Leighton took home the Joe Robbie MVP with five catches for 169 yards and three touchdowns.
West Central, a team long synonymous with a varied ground attack that uses multiple formations and motion, took to the air to generate its comeback. Senior quarterback Dan Skinner heaved a season-high 40 passes and completed 26 of them for 274 yards and two scores.
“We knew he could do that. We always knew he had the feet to do that,” Coach Kent Mueller said. “We’ve been working on our version of the spread all season long. We’ve shown it here and there, but not a ton, probably saving it for moments like this.”
Mueller said that his team played a scrimmage earlier this year with big passing plays almost exclusively in mind. They called it the Razzle-Dazzle.
“It was kind of like how that last quarter looked,” Mueller said. “ I told them at the start of the fourth quarter this would be the ultimate razzle-dazzle for them.”
Not a lot separated Madison from the rest of the best in ‘11A’, but in going 12-0 and winning its first state title, the Bulldogs only needed to be that much better. After one-score losses in each of the past two state championships — including a 28-21 defeat to West Central in 2013 — Madison wouldn’t be denied a third time.