Gone from the Class 11A playoffs this season is the old format, which broke into Region play like we still see in ‘11B’ and 9-man. Instead, a nine-game regular season played the fateful role in seeding an eight-team playoff field like those seen in ‘11AA’ and ‘11AAA’.
But those top two classes, with just nine teams in their respective fields, are still somewhat undermined by having so many losing teams make the playoffs. That’s not the case in Class 11A.
“When you look at the field and the fact that we have two 9-0 teams, three 8-1 teams, and then look at who’s sitting there at six, seven and eight, and you go, ‘Holy cow,’” said West Central coach Kent Mueller, whose Trojans are 8-1 and carry the No. 3 seed. “I can’t even remember a second round in the old system that looked like this.”
Mueller said of Tea Area, the No. 8 seed, “For one game they could be as good as any team in the state. I’d say the same about Lennox (the No. 7 seed).”
The Titans and Orioles both edged Hot Springs — all three teams went 6-3 on the season — for the final two playoff spots. With that, they drew opening round matchups against undefeated teams.
Lennox takes on high-flying two-seed St. Thomas More (9-0). The Cavaliers are led by quarterback Preston Arity and a speedy receiving corps. Their season low in scoring came in a 31-12 win over ‘11B’ two-seed Aberdeen Roncalli. The Cavs have posted 50-plus points four times.
“They’re definitely the most functional passing team we’ll go up against,” said Lennox coach Matthew Luze. “Madison has a great passing attack, but they want to run is as much as they throw it. … St. Thomas More has speed upon speed. They’re really phenomenal on film.”
Luze says the Orioles best chance is two-fold: Control the clock on offense, and don’t let St. Thomas More’s big plays multiply.
“We can’t let one big play turn into four big plays. We’ve got to move on from them,” Luze said. “If we make them have to work, eventually throwing the ball, especially this time of year, funny things can happen.”
Lennox will lean on its backfield, led by John Oldenkamp and Jacob Lackas, as well as the play of quarterback Tyler Leisinger and tight end Jacob Hinker.
The Orioles have made a habit of keeping games close against good teams. STM isn’t just an offensive juggernaut; the Cavs haven’t allowed more than 14 points all season.
Tea Area will also have its hands full against top-ranked Madison (9-0), but the Titans come in confident.
That’s largely because just a few weeks ago, on Oct. 16, the Tea gave the Bulldogs arguably their toughest game of the season with Madison winning 32-29.
“We kind of know what they’re going to do and they know what we’re going to do,” said coach Craig Clayberg. “The best thing we can do is keep our offense on the field and keep theirs off it.”
Madison gets back talented split-end Mason Leighton, who missed the Oct. 16 game, to give the team its three-pronged attack along with quarterback Mitch Hansen and running back Brodie Frederiksen.
Sioux Falls Christian (8-1), the fourth-seed, gets a difficult matchup in 8-1 Belle Fourche. Any breaking down of the Broncs’ success starts with their standout running back, Bryson Westland. The senior running back — at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds — has been a wrecking ball against opposing defenses. Westland rushed for 2,023 yards and 28 touchdowns and is also playmaker on defense.
Belle Fourche has dominated its competition save for a one-sided loss to St. Thomas More in the penultimate game of the regular season.
“They’re a lot like we are — they like to run the football and have a sound defense,” said SFC coach Jake Pettengill. “One of my kids made this point the other day — [Belle Fourche] has a lot of seniors, great offensive and defensive lines, and a running back who’s 6-1, 180 pounds. That’s the same kind of style we play. And they’re a physical football team.”
The Chargers also sport just one loss — and it, too, came against an undefeated team (Madison). But SFC gave the Bulldogs a much tougher go than Belle Fourche did STM, losing 32-26 in overtime on Oct. 2.
Sioux Falls also has its own star running back in Keegan Van Egdom. The senior rushed for over 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns to lead the Chargers’ power running attack.
“He’s getting to experience a phenomenal offensive line, but he’s also grown so much,” Pettengill said. “His vision is so much better. He’s really risen to the occasion.”
Defensively, SFC have been similarly dominant. The Chargers pitched three shutouts and held opponents to 14 points or less in every game except against Madison.
When the Chargers take to Bob Young Field to host the Broncs, they’ll be chasing their first playoff win — of course, it’s the team’s first playoff appearance. Pettengill inherited a winless team, and after one win in his first season, the coach has doubled that total in every season: Two wins in 2013, four wins in ’14 and an 8-1 record this year.
It’s been a season of firsts: SFC’s first winning season; playoff appearance; Big East champions; averaging 35 points a game; three defensive shutouts.
“If we just settled for those, we’d be average,” Pettengill said. “We have a special group, and special groups come along only every so often.”
The final game of the field pits three-seed West Central (8-1) against No. 6 Milbank Area (6-3). The only blip on the Trojans’ season was a 28-7 loss to Madison on Sept. 11.
“We are playing really, really well right now. We’re still waiting for that complete game, but we’ve improved in all facets of the game,” Mueller said.
A big part of West Central’s success has come from the play of two anchors on the offensive and defensive lines. Seniors Hunter Hanley and Bryce Edberg have uncommon athleticism to go with their mammoth frames. (Hanley is 6-3 and tips the scales at 293; Edberg, also 6’3, weighs nearly 280).
“Offensively, Hunter’s the straw that stirs our running game,” Mueller said. “And Bryce just quietly, if there is such thing for a kid that’s that big, contributes from the other side. Those two have just been so solid.”
Hanley and Edberg have helped key running back Jonah Rechtenbaugh, the team’s all-purpose threat. Rechtenbaugh is such a threat in the return game that he’s rarely kicked to. In three kickoff return attempts this season he has two touchdown returns. Defensively, he’s the team’s top corner and consistently draws the most difficult matchups.
Against Milbank, West Central faces an effective team that varies inside runs with a dangerous screen game.
“They have strong running backs that are very explosive” Mueller said. “They don’t do a lot of stuff, but what they do, they do really, really well.”