NEW YORK MILLS, Minn. — New York Mills senior tackle Braeden Peterson was 3 years old the last time a New York Mills football team advanced to the state tournament.
Peterson and his teammates were too young to remember the Eagles’ 2006 state appearance, the first in program history. They surely won’t forget the second.
New York Mills cruised to the Minnesota Section 6A crown with a 32-0 win over Breckenridge on Nov. 5 to earn a trip to the state tournament. The Eagles (10-1) beat Deer River (11-1) in the state quarterfinals 20-6 at Brainerd High School in their second state appearance. The Warriors were the No. 8-ranked team in the final Class A media poll.
“It was pretty surreal to get the section championship plaque and be able to hold it and bring it back to the fans,” Peterson said. “It was pretty crazy to finally get to the Fargodome, because that’s something we worked for all year.”
On Saturday, the Eagles take on Mayer Lutheran (11-1), the Section 2A champions at 11:30 at U.S. Bank Stadium in the Class A quarterfinals.
The state berth was 15 years in the making. New York Mills head coach Matt Radniecki guided the Eagles to state in 2006.
“We’re excited. We feel like we have a very good team. We’re 9-1 for a reason,” Radniecki said before the quarterfinal win against Deer River. “We’ve been able to win some games and we’re a pretty confident group. We have nine seniors, so for a small school, that's a really good nucleus to have.”
Radniecki, in his 28th year at the helm, said a glaring similarity between his two state tournament squads is team confidence.
“I think that confidence level in both groups is very evident, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re having some success because they really, truly believe in themselves,” Radniecki said. “They’re very confident when they step on the field that they’ll get the job done.”
The Eagles have certainly taken care of business this season. New York Mills' only loss this fall was a 28-14 setback to Polk County West in the last game of the regular season. The Eagles bounced back with three lopsided wins in the section tournament. They rolled to the section title by a combined score of 106-20.
“We all think that we can beat the guy in front of us, especially our linemen,” senior running back Dane Niemi said.
The Eagles will have to rely on their strong run game on Friday if they want to come away with the win, Radniecki said. The teams are slated to play the quarterfinal game in freezing temperatures and blustery winds. Fifteen years ago, temperatures dipped below 20 degrees when New York Mills played Fertile-Beltrami in the quarterfinals.
Luckily, the Eagles have been able to consistently run the football this season and run it hard. The NYM offense won nine of 10 games this season by an average score of 34-8. But the Eagles aren’t just a grind-it-out team, Radniecki said. They have some explosiveness and a stout offensive line.
“We have a lot of guys who handle the ball and want to see each other score,” Niemi said. “I think that's what makes us so good is that we don’t care who scores. We just want to see each other do well so that we can play well.”
Radniecki was pleased with his team’s performance on both sides of the ball throughout the section tournament. The Eagles forced three turnovers against Breckenridge to highlight a stout defensive effort, and hope to continue the momentum Friday night. New York Mills has allowed 78 points this season and posted five shutouts this season.
“We’re ready to play. We want to play,” Niemi said. “So I feel pretty good about it.”
“We had a really strong team last year and we feel like we missed our shot to get to the Fargodome,” Peterson said of the pandemic-shortened season. “So this year we didn’t let it slip through.”
The Eagles knew the talent and experience they’d have this season. The long-awaited tournament run was no surprise to Niemi, who has been on varsity for four seasons. Still, the Eagles are very aware of the challenge ahead.
“They’re a very physical football team, so we’re going to have to be able to match that physicality,” Radniecki said of Deer River. “It’s something we’ve been able to do so far this year, but Deer River is 11-0 for a reason.”