In Kyle Ashman and Casey Finck, the Verndale Pirates have possibly the best running duo in the lakes area.
Throw in quarterback Cory Umland, fullback Josh Richter and a posse of receivers and the Pirates have an arsenal few Nine-Man football teams can compete with. That's one reason Verndale is 4-0 overall, 3-0 in the Pheasant Conference.
The sixth-ranked Pirates will look to add another win 3:30 p.m. Friday when they host Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley.
To do that, Verndale needs to develop its potent running attack. Head coach Mike Mahlen can rely on Finck and Ashman to take care of that, but it doesn't begin with the backs. The offensive line will be called upon to step up again.
"We're definitely bigger than we have been in the past and they're doing a good job of opening holes," said Mahlen. "We moved Eric Bramer to tight end. He started at tackle for us last year and that's been a good move for us. Plus, Josh Richter at fullback doesn't get a lot of carries, but he's made some good blocks."
Verndale's line is larger. Senior Cody Lovelace is 280 pounds, junior Brent Mattson 220 and junior center Jason Kneisl 190.
The line has helped Ashman to 458 yards on 72 carries (6.36 average). He's also scored 13 touchdowns in Verndale's four wins.
Finck is averaging 7.16 yards per carry. He's gained 358 yards on 50 carries with 5 touchdowns.
"We would like to throw the ball a little bit more," said Mahlen. "Hillcrest did a good job of taking the passing game away from us last week.
"I would like to throw the ball 15 to 18 times a game. We're going to have to down the road when we get these teams that stack up the line. But we're still going to rely on our running game."
Verndale has outgained opponents 376.75 total yards to 179.25. That translates into 159 points scored by Verndale and 30 scored against.
"We've been playing fairly good defense, but I think we can play better," said Mahlen. "Last week, we had 69 running plays and Hillcrest only had 32 plays. We limited them with our ball control, which makes our defense that much better."
Mahlen has seen Clinton twice so far. The first time it used a wishbone offense while the second time it threw more out of an I-formation.
"They start nine seniors and they're one of the bigger teams," said Mahlen. "They expected their record would be better but their 'O' and 'D' lines have everyone returning from last year.
"We don't want to take them for granted. When you have that many seniors and experience you just never know."
Aside from a 36-18 win over Chokio-Alberta-Herman-Norcross, the Pirates' defense has yielded just one touchdown in two games and shut out Hillcrest Lutheran 43-0.
Leading the defense is Finck who recorded 12 tackles against Chokio. Last week against Hillcrest, Tyler Fuller intercepted two passes to give him four this season. Umland also secured an interception, his second.
"We're definitely in the plus when it comes to the turnover ratio," Mahlen said. "That's one thing we stressed at the beginning of the year. Last year was the first time I can remember we were in the minus."
Clinton comes in having lost to Chokio 47-6, Hillcrest 37-20 Sept. 14 and Wheaton 26-8 Sept. 7. But last year, Clinton knocked off Verndale 18-6.
The Aitkin Gobblers' tennis team will get one more crack at the Pequot Lakes Patriots 4:30 p.m. today. Aitkin lost its first match to Pequot Sept. 3 by a 6-1 score. Pequot knocked Aitkin around at the Pine City tournament Sept. 7 as well.
The Gobblers then tango with Wadena-Deer Creek 4:30 p.m. Thursday. The matchup to watch will be at No. 1 singles between Brittany Johnson and Mikaela Hutson. Johnson beat Hutson 6-4, 7-5 Sept. 16 to help Aitkin to a 7-0 victory.
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