It's a new opponent and a new facility for the Verndale Pirates football team, but a familiar position.
The ninth-ranked Pirates enter their 13th state Nine-Man tournament, their first in three years, when they play the fifth-ranked Houston Hurricanes at 7 p.m. Thursday at Hamline University in St. Paul.
"We're used to playing outside, but this turf is different," said Pirates head coach Mike Mahlen. "We've never played on that type before. We've played in the Fargodome and other places where you use tennis shoes. Here you use your regular spikes I guess. That's different from what we're used to."
Ethan Kern ran with the ball Aug. 31 in Verndale.
The Hurricanes (11-0) topped Mabel-Canton 26-7 in the Section 1 final. This is Houston's second state tournament, its first since 1982.
Houston averaged 34.3 points a game, while giving up just 10.2. It held six opponents to just one score.
"We have to tackle," said Mahlen. "We stopped Ashby (in the section final) sometimes, but they still had a few long runs and 275 yards of rushing against us. We have to do a better job of controlling the run than we did last week.
"Hopefully, our defense can play a little bit better so we don't have to put up quite as many points."
The Hurricanes rushed for 2,739 yards (228 per game) and threw for 1,500 (125 a game).
What: Nine-Man state quarterfinals
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Hamline University, St. Paul
Junior running back Kevin Lindh rushed for 1,225 yards and 19 touchdowns. Junior Zach Stackhouse added 814 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior Steven Thompson tallied 381 yards and six scores.
Junior Andy Sires passed for 1,477 yards and 16 touchdowns on 91-of-168 passing.
"They have a lot of speed," said Mahlen. "They're quick and they pretty much match up with us. They're not real big, but we're not real big either. They throw the ball better than we do. They have three pretty quick backs. Their game was on a grass field and they were fast. On artificial turf they'll be quicker yet."
Sires' main targets are Thompson (37 receptions, 611 yards, 6 touchdowns), Lindh (24, 393, 3) and junior tight end Trent Kerrigan (12, 202, 3).
Defensively, Houston forced 19 fumbles and picked off three passes. Opponents converted just 28 percent of their third downs.
"It looks like they're going to run a 3-4, 4-3 defense similar to what Ashby did," Mahlen said. "Our running attack will be similar to what we did last week."
That rushing attack went for 463 yards in the Section 4 final, which Verndale won 46-30 over Ashby. Sam Moenkedick went for a school-record 385 yards and also scored six touchdowns.
The senior tailback has amassed 1,735 yards and 25 touchdowns this season. Senior Ethan Kern has 672 yards and nine touchdowns.
Quarterback Matt Moenkedick, originally the team's fullback, has thrown for 258 yards and three touchdowns on just 25-of-50 passing.
"From what I have seen on film, and through word of mouth, they are a very physical team and they like to come right at you," Houston head coach Jason Freed said of Verndale. "They have a talented backfield that looks very tough. Coach Mahlen has a disciplined football team that isn't going to make mistakes and turn the ball over. We have to try and create turnovers."
Verndale (9-1) has outgained its opponents 4,120 yards (412 per game) to 2,296 (229 per game) and outscored them 34.5 to 12.4. Most of those 12.4 points were by Ashby as Verndale allowed just three teams to score more than one touchdown against them this season.
"Defensively, they're sound," said Freed. "They're pretty quick with their linebackers and secondary. We have to try to make sure we get our hats and shoulder pads into them."
Of Houston's opponents, Mabel-Canton and Lanesboro were ranked. Cleveland, which Houston defeated 34-6, is 10-1 and also in the state tournament. It plays Wheaton in the quarterfinals.
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5856.
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