The Central Lakes College football team will be on the road north to Ely before the sun rises Saturday for the MCC state playoffs.
Once there, the Raiders will seek to avenge an early-season loss to Vermilion and capture their first playoff victory in a decade.
CLC's last trip to Vermilion, in week three, ended in frustration as an Ironmen player returned an interception for a touchdown in overtime and sent the Raiders to a 20-14 defeat and a 1-2 record.
From that point on, CLC rattled off five wins in its next six contests, with its only loss coming by way of Rochester 31-20 on Saturday.
If the Raiders beat Vermilion, they would presumably face undefeated Rochester the following weekend at St. Cloud State University in the title game.
Central Lakes College Raider Nate Schoenecker stiff-armed a Rochester player in Saturday's Southern Division title game. Schoenecker had six catches for 89 yards and has 1,001 receiving yards for the season. Brainerd Dispatch/File photo
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Head coach Greg Medeck, a member of the last CLC team to head to the postseason in 1997, said the team is confident heading into Saturday's matchup.
"The progress we've made throughout the season is very satisfying. Our goals just continue to rise the more progress we make," he said. "We've lost two close games to potentially our next two opponents. Our guys all feel that this first one is one we can take and avenge the bad game we played up there. Then we get to that championship game to possibly avenge the Rochester loss."
Last season, the Raiders finished 6-3 overall and missed the playoffs by way of a tiebreaker. This season, CLC will head to the postseason with the same overall record but with an improved 4-1 mark in the division.
Sophomore wide receiver Nate Schoenecker, a member of the 2006 team, leads the NJCAA with 67 receptions, 1,001 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. The receiver said he is looking forward to another shot at Vermilion and a chance to exploit the Ironmen's defense.
"It was one of those games you hate to lose because it's so close. I knew that if we had the chance to play them again it would be a whole different game because of the progress we've made since then," he said. "I think we can pass the ball well against them.
"The past couple of weeks we've kind of turned into a 60-40 pass offense. They play more of a cover-one defense. So it's a defense that you want to attack with the pass."
Vermilion's defense ranked third out of five Northern Division teams while the offense was ranked second.
The Ironmen boast the division's top quarterback, Jerrick Jenkins, along with the top three receivers in Marquis Clark, Bradley Martin and Josh Merricks.
Raiders at Vermilion
Time: 1 p.m. Saturday
Regular season: Vermilion, which won the 2006 state title, beat the Raiders 20-14 on Sept. 15.
Conference: CLC 4-1, Verm. 4-0
Division: CLC 6-3, Verm. 7-2
This should be taken with a grain of salt, however, because the offenses of the Southern Division are dwarfed by those of the Northern.
Sam Gallu, a Brainerd native and one of the Raiders' top tacklers with 63, said he is excited for CLC's defense to have a shot to prove itself in the postseason.
"We know that we are one of the fastest teams in the state. And, that's how we physically dominate," he said. "Even up front our linemen are very fast Our linebackers pursue the ball perfectly. The defensive backs have done a pretty good job of covering except for a few plays.
"We all know what we have to improve on, but we're confident we can beat this team.
"They run the spread a lot. We're switching stuff up from what we did last time. We just need to communicate better. That's been the weakness in the defense, particularly with the linebackers and secondary. Last time we played them, they had the long touchdown run because we just weren't ready for it. After that they didn't score on us again."
The Raiders' defense has been solid, yielding just 80 rushing and 200 passing yards per game while allowing an average of just over 20 points per contest.
CLC's offense has been one of the state's best, averaging 355 yards and nearly 28 points.
The Raiders will bring the stingy defense and powerful offense four hours north Saturday.
Gallu, who has never been on a team that won a playoff game, said it is a exciting time to be part of the CLC football program.
"There's X number of teams in this conference and only four make it," he said. "For the Raiders to be part of it for the first time in 10 years, that's something special."
TY RUSHMEYER, sports writer, may be reached at email@example.com or at 855-5865.
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