CROSBY -- Since the inception of the current football playoff system in 1987 the Crosby-Ironton Rangers have only made the section semifinals four times.
The fourth time came this year, due in large part to the Rangers' big three: quarterback Ben Baratto, fullback Kyle Bartels and receiver Gideon Avelsgard.
In their two playoff games -- a 61-7 win over Two Harbors in the Section 7, Class 3A quarterfinals and a 23-20 loss to International Falls in the semifinals Saturday -- the big three accounted for 442 yards and eight touchdowns. In the I-Falls game the big three had 261 of the 289 total offensive yards.
Against Two Harbors, Bartels carried the ball just nine times for 132 yards, one reception for 10 yards and a touchdown. Against I-Falls he had 79 yards on 18 carries.
Baratto carried the ball eight times for 32 yards and two touchdowns and threw another touchdown against Two Harbors. In the semifinal game Baratto had 89 yards rushing on 21 carries and scored two times. He also threw for seven completions and 93 yards.
Avelsgard scored three times against Two Harbors -- once on a 44-yard reverse, another on a seven-yard pass and the last on a 59-yard punt return.
Against I-Falls he had six catches for 78 yards. A senior, Avelsgard showed what a good wide out can mean to a team.
"He was vitally important for us," said Rangers head coach Craig Johnson. "He gave us a dimension that we haven't had in a long time and that's speed on the outside. He's not a big kid, 5-8, 160 pounds, but he runs a 4.6 40 (meter dash) and catches the ball really well."
With his speed Avelsgard was the deep threat and in Crosby that means running a fade pattern straight down the field. On the year he had 29 receptions for 495 yards and five receiving touchdowns. He also scored on a run and punt return.
"Once we have a strong amount of momentum we always like to gamble and go for the long ball and with his speed, several of his touchdowns were long pass plays. That's what set other teams on their heels and that worked for us," Johnson said.
In the Rangers' option offense the fullback is the workhorse. He runs, blocks and catches the ball. Bartels excelled in all facets of the game for C-I this year. In only nine games he carried the ball 140 times for 939 yards. Because C-I had a bye its last week, Bartels was held under 1,000 yards. He scored 10 touchdowns and caught 11 passes for 105 yards.
"When you run the veer offense that fullback is going to get up through there a lot of times," said Johnson. "He had a great year. He had a 100 yards plus average. The last four or five games he really came on.
"Earlier he would get the yards that were there. The last four games he was getting the yards that were there but he also started carrying people and getting some yards that weren't there. I'm really proud of his progress."
Baratto was the field general. The junior quarterback last year was kind of thrown into the position three weeks into his sophomore year. This year he excelled rushing the ball 103 times for 639 yards. He also completed 59 of his 127 passes for 855 yards. He threw for five touchdown passes and ran for 15 more. He was also the team's leading tackler.
"He continually made good reads and his added dimension of running put pressure on the defense. He throws the ball well but he runs so well that he's kind of the double threat," Johnson said.
Baratto fits the same prototype of the Vikings' quarterback, Daunte Culpepper. At 6-1, 200 pounds, the junior could run over opposing linebackers as well as run past safeties.
"The big thing that's different for C-I football was Baratto's ability to run the ball," said Johnson. "Opponents have to honor him on our option and when they rush the passer, if it's not a contained rush, he would run the ball. We ran the ball for more yards than we passed. It wasn't because we couldn't, but because the situation was there. Either we were running down the clock or we were way ahead."
With Baratto coming back next year things could be exciting once again in C-I. But the loss of Bartels and Avelsgard will be noticed early on.
"They were a three-point attack," Johnson said. "We had speed up the middle and speed on the perimeter and Baratto running and passing.
"If you come in a game and there's one guy you need to stop, most teams can usually do that. That's why we had all the big games because opponents had to stop three guys and plus you add (halfback) John Koons and that was the reason for our success."
By the way, the other three times the Rangers made it to the section semifinals was in 1989, 1991 and 1994. In 1994, they beat Hermantown and went on to the section finals against International Falls -- the only time C-I has made it to the section finals. What a great year that was.
Other notable performances:
Football -- Jeff Pace of Pillager rushed 10 times for 115 yards in a 28-14 win over Waubun.
Aitkin's Scott Rivers carried the ball nine times for 98 yards and a touchdown in a 20-14 overtime loss to Hermantown.
Pierz's Nick Senn rushed for 119 yards on 20 carries in a 17-0 loss to Eden Valley-Watkins.
C-I's John Koons ran for 106 yards on just six carries and scored on a 72-yard run in the Rangers' 61-7 win over Two Harbors.
Verndale's Chad Christenson was seven-for-10 passing for 129 yards and a touchdown in a 43-6 win over Underwood.
Cross country -- Wadena-Deer Creek's Adam Asfeld won the Section 6A title with a time of 16:12.
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