Aside from the move from Class A to 9-man, little has changed for the Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn football team.
For the second consecutive year, the Sioux entered the playoffs as a No. 3 seed only to go on the road and upset some of the top teams in the state. W-N-G (9-2) is one win away from back-to-back Dakota Bowl appearances. The Sioux travel to play third-ranked Shiloh Christian (10-0) on Saturday in the playoff semifinals.
W-N-G is the only team remaining that didn't win its respective region and the only team with more than one loss this season. The Sioux lost to TGU and Divide County, but avenged their defeat to the No. 2 Titans with a 44-12 victory in Saturday's quarterfinal.
Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn eighth-grader Trent Marquart gets tackled by TGU junior linebacker Hunter Schell during W-N-G’s 9-man playoff win Saturday in Towner.
"We embrace it, but I don't feel like we are underdogs," W-N-G senior quarterback Hunter Braaten said. "We've had success throughout the season and are getting better each game."
The Sioux defeated Linton-HMB, Milnor-North Sargent and Langdon-Munich before falling to Hazen in the Dakota Bowl in their final season in Class A last year.
Braaten has been a key component in the Sioux's playoff run. In wins against Grant County-Flasher and TGU, the 5-foot-9, 160-pound signal-caller threw for 240 yards and rushed for 652. Braaten posted season highs in carries (35), yards (342) and touchdowns (4) against GC-F.
"As he goes we go," W-N-G coach Tom Nesvold said. "It's kind of geared around him with his athletic abilities, but at the same point we have to have everybody on the same page. We have to have blocking downfield. We have to have people catch the ball. We have to have people run the ball up inside. He's definitely a key feature in our offense, but everybody has to play their part."
Braaten was also quick to praise his teammates. Senior Ethan Miller was Braaten's go-to wideout against TGU, catching five passes for 94 yards and a touchdown. Senior fullback Hawkin Smette scored twice from a yard out against the Titans. Smette had four carries entering the playoffs, but in the last two games the 5-11, 160-pound back rushed 20 times for 69 yards to complement Braaten.
The Sioux will surely be the underdog against the Skyhawks, but that won't stop them from trying to get back to the Dakota Bowl.
"Every team strives to get to the championship game and finish it no matter what level you're at," Nesvold said. "I don't care if it's for 9-man or AAA, everybody wants to be there."
Well-Balanced Bison set for another test
All season the Hazen football team has played with the pressure of being the defending Class A state champions.
The top-ranked Bison have taken opponents' best shots, but remain unblemished at 9-0 heading into a playoff semifinal matchup at No. 4 Des Lacs-Burlington (10-0) on Saturday. Hazen has won 17 straight games dating back to last season.
Hazen coach Rick Philion said playing in big games last year has paid dividends thus far.
"The kids have been there before and they have a pretty good idea of what they have to do and hopefully the experience plays a little bit of a role," Philion said.
Hazen has outscored opponents 390-74 this season, holding six to under 10 points, including third-ranked Killdeer (7) and Class AA Beulah (0). Even on rare occasions when opponents solved Hazen's stingy defense, the Bison countered with their big-play offense.
Rugby trailed Hazen 21-14 at halftime in both teams' playoff opener, but the Bison scored 27 unanswered points in the third quarter. Quarterback Connor Doll hit Dominick Opp for a 54-yard touchdown and connected with Nate Leintz on a 66-yard score. Leintz and Briar Bornemann combined for 308 yards on 22 carries.
In the quarterfinals, the Bison took Lewis & Clark-ORCS' best punch in the opening minutes and countered with 56 unanswered points to knock out the Bombers. Hazen scored 36 points in the second quarter. Six of Hazen's eight touchdowns went for more than 20 yards.
"The ball bounced the right way for us a couple times," Philion said. "The defense stepped up and kept the other team off the field. It was just kids making big plays is what it is. The offensive line opened up large holes for them."
Points could be hard to come by Saturday in Des Lacs as the Lakers allow nine points per game and held their last seven opponents to eight points or less.
"They have a bunch of kids with a lot of athletic ability," Philion said. "Turnovers will be a big key and that's what you've seen with both of our playoff games up to this point. The team that wins the turnover battle, with the defense the way it's going to be, could put somebody in a pretty good offensive position."
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.