No. 3 Lakers to battle Spartans in Fargodome
Although it's weird to say, it's been awhile since the Detroit Lakes football team has been one step away from the state playoffs.
But that's exactly where the Lakers will be come Thursday at 8 p.m. inside the Fargodome, as the Class 4A No. 3 ranked DL will face defending state champion Rocori (6-3) in the Section 8-4A championship.
Not since 2007 have the Lakers played in the section title game, and this is exactly where they want to be in 2012.
The Lakers rolled through their regular season schedule by going a perfect 8-0 and earning their first Heart O'Lakes Conference championship along the way.
The 2007 DL team also went undefeated in regular season play, before falling to Sartell in the Section 8-4A championship 35-8.
"These kids have worked very hard to gain this opportunity," said DL head coach Flint Motschenbacher. "Playing for the section championship is the reward for all their hard work."
A very tough obstacle to overcome for state
Despite outscoring their opponents by a combined 281-96, the Lakers will be lining up against their toughest opponent of the season.
Rocori is in a similar situation from a year ago, when they won the section championship, then proceeded to surprise everyone by claiming an eventual Class 4A state championship title as well.
The Spartans gained a big boost in the section semifinals last Saturday, as their senior starting quarterback, Mac Mueller, returned from a separated shoulder injury, which forced him to miss the final four games of the season.
With Mueller, the Spartans went 4-0 to start the season, as Rocori outscored their opponents 148-67, including a season-opening 48-28 win over Class 6A Brainerd.
After Mueller went down, along with their second-string quarterback, Rocori lost three games in a row despite not allowing any of their opponents to score over 20 points.
But a 26-13 win over St. Cloud Tech secured a No. 2 seed in the playoffs, thus giving Mueller an extra week of rest.
"After (Mueller) was hurt, we didn't think we were going to get him back at all," said Rocori head coach Mike Rowe. "We asked him to get a second opinion in the Twin Cities and they put him on an aggressive rehab therapy.
"He wasn't cleared to play until that Friday, the day before we played Fergus Falls in the semifinals."
The timing was perfect, as Mueller was more than in good shape, and he rushed for a game-high 108 yards on 14 carries, while throwing for 55 yards in Rocori's 32-13 win over Fergus Falls.
What remained consistent for the Spartans throughout the season was tough defense. They allowed just 92 points during their rugged Central Lakes Conference schedule.
"We pride ourselves on good defense, especially in a conference like the Central Lakes," Rowe said.
Thursday's section championship game will feature two of the top quarterbacks in the area, with the Lakers boasting a 1,000-yard rusher in junior Michael Herzog.
Both Mueller and Herzog hold the reins to a pair of potent offenses, while each defense is as stout as they come.
Herzog and the DL offensive line have ground opposing defenses into the ground all season long, as the junior QB is only 154 yards away from becoming the Laker all-time single season rushing leader.
Mark Leslie holds the record with 1,427 rushing yards in 1985, while Herzog is currently in seventh place on the list with 1,273 yards.
Herzog's amazing recovery from an ACL tear he suffered last January is far behind him, as he already holds the most carries in a single season in Laker history with his 238 rushes, eclipsing Corey Brogren's 235, set in 1997.
So it's no question that to be the victor Thursday evening, they will need to control the line of scrimmage.
"That will set the tone early," said Rowe of what team will win in the trenches. "We both like to run the football and we both have dynamic quarterbacks."
The Lakers will be depending on their reliable offensive line, which includes center Andrew Brown, guards Kirby Siewert and Brandon Johnson; tackles Tyler Gebhart and Josh Weber.
"The offensive line has done a good job up front opening up running lanes and also have protected the passer," Motschenbacher said.
But the onus will also lie on each team's defense.
Mueller -- who runs a fast-tempo, no huddle offense effectively -- is a dual threat, after he rushed for 564 yards in the Spartans' first five games (he was injured during Rocori's fifth game) while throwing for 624 yards with an impressive 64.8 percentage mark, going 57-88 for eight touchdowns.
"DL's front seven on defense is phenomenal and they tackle well," Rowe said. "This game will be about controlling the football and not turning it over."
On the other side, Herzog has thrown for 635 yards, going 30-72 with 10 touchdown passes, to go along with his 1,273 rushing yards.
DL relies a bit more on their other rushers, as well, with junior running back Jarret Nosal going for an impressive 655 yards on 118 carries and slotback Stephen Erb running for 232 yards on 29 carries for an impressive average of 8.0 ypc.
Senior wide receiver Kirk McLeod will have to be accounted for, as well, after hauling in a team-high 12 receptions for 263 yards (21.9 yards per catch) and four touchdowns.
Experience varies on each side, as Rocori carries 29 seniors, while DL has 18.
The Spartans do have good playoff experience after their state title run last year, but that is in the past, Rowe said.
"That was last year, this is this year," the Rocori coach said. "We don't use last year, but these players have played in the big games and they are ready for this next challenge."
For the Lakers, getting back to traditional DL football is exciting.
"We didn't have a lot of experience coming into the season, but these kids turned into some very good football players," Motschenbacher said. "Rocori has a bunch of good athletes and they are talented all over.
"It's going to be a fun game to watch. This is a great opportunity in perfect conditions inside the dome. This should be a great high school game."
With the artificial turf inside the Fargodome providing a fast track, one of these two teams will be flying high heading into the Class 4A state playoffs.
The only thing now is to wait Thursday evening and see which one survives to play another day.