A new year filled with new opponents didn't slow down the TGU football team's recent streak of success.
The second-ranked Titans finished the regular season undefeated for the second consecutive year and successfully defended their Region 3 title, fending off newcomers Divide County and Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn - last year's Class A state runner-up.
TGU (9-0) enters its first-round playoff game against Beach (5-3) at 2 p.m. Saturday having won 19 of its last 20 games. The teams haven't met since the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Beach - the No. 4 seed from Region 4 - provides a formidable challenge.
"We've watched video of them and know they're a (Class) A-sized team," TGU coach Scott Thorson said. "They're a real physical type of team that doesn't do anything fancy. They just bring it right at you. It will be a battle up front."
Beach's line stands an average of 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds. The Buccaneers boast a pair of bruising running backs in seniors Tyler Steffen (6-2, 200) and Anthony Weinreis (5-9, 199).
TGU's defense has been stout all season, allowing 15.1 points per game in eight contests (the Titans won via forfeit against New Town in their regular-season finale). The Titans limited Divide County to 12 points and W-N-G and St. John to 18 points each.
"We've played well defensively all year," Thorson said. "Most of the points we've given up have been to the top teams in the region. I feel very confident our defense can play with the top teams."
The Titans recorded 25 sacks during the regular season. Junior linebacker Colter Thorp led TGU with nine and senior defensive end Ray Thomas added five. Senior defensive lineman Luke Bacon recorded a team-high 51 tackles and nine tackles for loss.
TGU's offense has been just as good, putting up 417.4 yards and 42.2 points per game. Only St. John (43.7) scored more in the region. Junior quarterback Eli Luna is a dual threat. Luna passed for 1,384 yards and 20 touchdowns and ran for a team-high 608 yards and 11 scores. Thorp has been Luna's go-to receiver, catching 19 passes for 576 yards and nine touchdowns.
"It's going to be an aggressive game up front," Luna said. "The battle's always up front. Whoever is more aggressive and wants it more is going to be the team that comes out on top."
Although Thorson said the Titans have set their goals high this postseason, he doesn't have a Dakota-Bowl-or-bust mentality.
"Our season's been a success already," Thorson said. "We had an undefeated regular season and won the region title. Not many teams get that opportunity, so it's already been a successful season. Everything else is just icing on the cake."
TGU's season has ended at the hands of Divide County each of the last two seasons. The teams could meet in the semifinals for a second straight year, but the Titans aren't looking ahead.
"We're preparing like every day could be our last, like we have all season," Luna said. "Pedal to the metal. We have to take it one game at a time."
Other area matchups
R4 No. 1 Shiloh Christian (8-0) vs. R3 No. 4 St. John (7-2)
Defense is a strong suit for both teams. Shiloh Christian allowed 11 points per game, holding opponents under double digits four times.
St. John defeated Drake-Anamoose 54-28 in its regular-season finale to earn the four seed in Region 3. The Woodchucks surrendered a region-low 14.8 points per game.
R3 No. 2 Divide County (7-2) vs. R4 No. 3 Richardton-Taylor-Hebron (7-2)
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Divide County, but the Maroons found a winning formula in the ground game. Divide County averages 300.8 yards rushing per game. Senior Isaac Jacobs leads the attack with 751 yards and 10 touchdowns on 94 carries.
Richardton-Taylor-Hebron's only losses were to third-ranked Shiloh Christian and fifth-ranked Grant County-Flasher.
R4 No. 2 Grant County-Flasher (7-1) vs. R3 No. 3 Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn (7-2)
Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn - last year's Class A state runner-up - fared well in its first 9-man regular season. W-N-G senior Hunter Braaten leads the team with 878 passing yards and 930 rushing yards. Defensively, Braaten totaled 99 tackles.
Grant County-Flasher lost its first game of the season last Saturday at Shiloh Christian. The Storm average 49 points per game and scored 88 against Mott-Regent earlier this season.
R3 No. 1 Des Lacs-Burlington (8-0) vs. R4 No. 4 New Salem-Almont-Glen Ullin (5-3)
Des Lacs-Burlington is one of two undefeated Class A teams. The fourth-ranked Lakers allowed 75 points all season. DL-B's last five opponents scored a total of 24 points. Senior Tanner Holte led the defense with eight sacks, followed by sophomore Jayden Gunville (5.5) and Cole Hanenberg (3.5).
Two of New Salem-Almont-Glen Ullin's three losses were to ranked opponents.
R4 No. 1 Hazen (8-0) vs. R3 No. 4 Rugby (4-4)
The defending state champion posted lopsided win after lopsided win, defeating Killdeer 21-6 in the regular-season finale to win the Region 4 title. The Bison put up 47-plus points in six games and surrendered 7.1 points per contest.
Rugby has a tough task in front of it as the Panthers were 0-2 against ranked opponents this season. Junior quarterback Brad Heidelbaugh will be relied on heavily to break through Hazen's stingy defense.
R2 No. 2 North Prairie (7-2) vs. R1 No. 3 Carrington (6-2)
Fifth-ranked North Prairie sports a strong defense. In their seven wins, the Comets allowed 11.6 points per game. North Prairie held opponents under 10 points in five straight games during a six-game winning streak.
Carrington enters the playoffs on a two-game losing streak. The Cardinals lost their first game of the season at Hillsboro-Central Valley 18-16 before being blown out 39-0 against Oakes. Carrington's offense runs through junior running back Seth Abaurrea. The tailback has 831 yards and 11 touchdowns on 121 carries.
R3 No. 2 Lewis & Clark-ORCS (6-2) vs. R4 No. 3 Heart River (5-3)
The Bombers posted back-to-back impressive victories against Velva and Rugby in late September to help them grab a first-round home playoff game. L&C-OR can put up points on the ground with senior running back Mitchel White or through the air with junior quarterback Austin Lee.
Heart River is better than its third seed indicates. The Cougars' three losses are to No. 1 Hazen, No. 3 Killdeer and Class AA Watford City. Heart River enters the playoffs on a three-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 120-32.
R4 No. 2 Killdeer (7-1) vs. R3 No. 3 Velva (5-3)
Killdeer draws Velva in the first round for the second straight year. The Cowboys routed the Aggies 43-14 last season. No. 3 Killdeer crushed its opponents in its seven wins, winning by an average of 36 points per game.
Velva recovered from a tough start in which it lost three of four games. Velva has now won four straight, highlighted by a 73-16 win over Surrey in its regular-season finale.
Mike Kraft covers high school athletics, the Minot State University men's club hockey team and the Minot Minotauros. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.