The Verndale Pirates football team is two games away from two straight perfect seasons.
Standing in its way 8 a.m. Saturday at the Metrodome in the state Nine-Man semifinals is a team that has been looking up at Verndale all season.
The No. 1-ranked Pirates, winners of 26 straight games and the defending state champions, will face the No. 2 ranked Stephen-Argyle Central Storm.
In addition to Verndale, S-A is the only team back from last year's tournament. This is the eighth consecutive state appearance for the 12-0 Storm.
Last year they were eliminated by Nicollet in the state semifinals.
Over the last two years S-A is 21-1.
"The majority of their team is back from last year," said Verndale coach Mike Mahlen. "(Reece) Hendrickson is their main back. He's a good one. He's got good speed. They're pretty good-sized up front. We'll be outsized again."
Mahlen said S-A has a good football tradition with an excellent coach. The last time the teams squared off was in the 1996 state semifinals and Verndale won.
"We're a pretty traditional Wing-T type offense," said Storm coach Mark Kroulik. "We spread the ball around pretty well. Our junior quarterback (Riley St. Germain) is throwing for about 60 percent. We didn't do a lot of throwing during the year, but that's a pretty critical part of our game, to beat excellent teams like Verndale."
Kroulik said S-A runs the ball 70 percent of the time. He did concede that's because of early leads. The Storm is outscoring opponents 47.7 to 10.5.
State Nine-Man Semifinals
Verndale vs. Stephen-Argyle
Kickoff: 8 a.m. Saturday at the Metrodome
Kroulik didn't think they own a size advantage. He said size wouldn't necessarily be an advantage Saturday
"Quickness and speed in the lines and backfield on that carpet will be the key," he said. "That carpet turns short plays into big plays."
That should favor Verndale with small, but quick, offensive and defensive lines. Led by senior center Jason Kneisl, the Pirates have gained 3,504 rushing yards and 902 passing yards.
Junior Tyler Fisher leads Verndale with 1,635 yards rushing. Tyler Fuller has eight touchdowns in four playoff games while gaining 823 yards this season.
"I've never coached keying on one person," said Kroulik. "I don't believe in that. You can do that with teams that aren't very good. Better teams recognize that early. Plus, with Verndale, I don't know who you would key on.
"(Verndale quarterback Cory) Umland appears to be a big leader. He runs well, scrambles well and he runs the show for them. He took some shots in the last game. He's a tough kid. If you don't pressure him he's going to complete a pass. If you do he can bring it down and scramble with it."
Verndale is healthy despite playing on frozen ground last Friday in its 22-16 quarterfinal victory over Wheaton. S-A beat Mountain Iron-Buhl 35-6 in its quarterfinal win.
When asked about the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings Kroulik said they're fun, but he doesn't put much stock in them.
"We've been ranked No. 1 before and lost and ranked No. 2 and won," he said. "We think it's fun and adds interest, but whoever is doing the rankings, how they could possibly compare a team like Spring Grove to a Stephen-Argyle, which is 500 miles apart, there's just no way they can see both teams. Plus, you have a lot of teams playing 11-man schedules who are dropping down to Nine-Man."
The winner of Saturday's game will play the winner of Hillcrest Lutheran Academy and Spring Grove for the title.
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