Class 1A Quarterfinal Preview: U/S’s Lange to test Mahnomen’s defense
After clinching their fourth-consecutive Section 8-1A championship last week, there was a serene and calm celebration amongst the No. 1 ranked Mahnomen Indian football team.
“It was a feeling of business as usual by the players,” said Mahnomen head coach John Clark Jr. “But they don’t realize, yet, what they have accomplished. It’s never a given you make it this far.
“We are pretty spoiled here in Mahnomen.”
But it’s a well-earned kind of spoiled feeling for the community of Mahnomen, which has enjoyed one of the most consistent traditional powerhouses in the state, year in and year out.
After winning last year’s Class 1A state championship – the Indians’ seventh – the team simply regrouped and reloaded for another championship run.
Despite losing some key seniors off its 2012 state championship team, the Indians didn’t miss a beat, outscoring their opponents by a rather large margin of 545-32.
The Indians nonchalantly rolled through the regular season with an 8-0 record, with the closest game being a 42-14 throttling of Red Lake County.
Mahnomen then put it into another gear, outscoring their section playoff opponents by a 158-6 margin.
Next up, the Class 1A state playoffs.
“I’m excited for the kids, this never gets old,” Clark said. “The goal is winning another state title, but the kids are focused in practice and ready for that.”
The first state hurdle for the Indians will come Saturday at 3 p.m. on the Bemidji State University field, where the Indians will meet No. 6 ranked Upsala/Swanville, which carries a 10-1 record into the quarterfinals.
The Patriots will pose a challenge the Indians haven’t thus far seen and that comes in the form of the state’s leading rusher, senior Mitch Lange.
The Patriot running back, who stands 5-10, 180 pounds, has netted 1,898 yards on a whopping 297 carries (6.4 ypc) on the season. He has found the end zone 24 times and remarkably, has fumbled just once in those 297 carries.
“He’s the real deal,” Clark said. “He does everything well and has the breakaway speed and lateral quickness. He reminds me much of (former 1,000-yard Indian back) Levi DeVries.”
The Upsala/Swanville offensive line is a tough and rugged group, who “get after it” and good at sealing on the outside, thus allowing Lange to get the edge and an easy path to the second level.
“Lange will get the ball one way or the other,” Clark said. “They also have a couple of good wide receivers with good speed.
“Although they don’t pass it a lot, when they do, it’s usually a big one.”
With the Indians’ strength being one of the toughest run defenses in the state, the unit is relishing the chance of playing one of the best in the state.
Against three separate teams, Mahnomen’s defense stuffed the opposing rushing attack to either zero or negative yards in the entire game.
They also are a turnover-producing machine, with a total of 24 interceptions on the season.
So against the Patriots, it will be a rock hitting an immovable force. The winner will more than likely determine which teams moves on to the semifinals inside the Metrodome Saturday, Nov. 16.
“It will be important to play gap control and filling those gaps,” Clark said of the keys to limiting Lange. “This will be fun to see, because Lange will get his big plays and it will be interesting to see how our defense responds to that, since they really haven’t given any of those types of plays up this season.
“The kids want to prove and show how good this defense is.”
Offensively, the Indians’ success in past state playoff games was predicated on the quarterback play.
Starting sophomore quarterback Tom Pavek will be starting his only fourth game, after missing four due to an injury.
But Clark is confident his young signal caller is more than ready to start his first state playoff game.
“After the first quarter of the section championship game, he really settled in and played very well in the second half,” Clark said.
“I think he got rid of those big game jitters and is ready for Saturday.”
The rushing attack is a several-headed monster, with a bevy of different rushers carrying the ball.
Senior Austin Reitan leads the way with 110 carries for 823 yards (7.5 ypc) and 13 touchdowns. He will be the primary ball carrier, but senior Bob Bjorge is just as capable with his 7.5 ypc with 611 yards on 82 carries and nine touchdowns.
Others will be Pavek (nine TDs, 439 yards), and Kody Levebvre (six TDs, 395 yards).
Overall, Mahnomen has 65 rushing touchdowns, scored by 15 different players.
With the target picked out in the form of Lange, the Indians are prepping for their next big test.
It’s a place where many of these Mahnomen players have already seen and experienced.
It’s a place the Indians want to move on from and into what is becoming their second home – the Metrodome in Minneapolis.