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LAFAKIS: Gearing up for Velva-Ryan semifinal showdown

Although I have lived in North Dakota for less than four months, one prep sports notion made itself abundantly clear early on.

There’s a big-time football rivalry between Bishop Ryan and Velva. The game brings both communities to the forefront, as the best high school rivalries should.

Back on Sept. 20, Lions (10-1) and Aggies (10-0) alike were treated to a classic contest in Velva. The Aggies staved off a potential Ryan comeback and earned a 32-24 victory.

My first taste of the teams’ storied history marked the best football game I have covered this season. It showcased almost everything you could ask for in a ballgame — two high-powered offenses, critical defensive plays, and Ryan senior lineman Corbin Okeson returning a late kickoff for a 66-yard touchdown.

“It sounds crazy, but I think us losing that game was the best thing to happen to us all year,” Ryan head coach Roger Coleman said. “We got humbled a little bit.”

Velva lays claim to the Penny Trophy, but today’s Class A semifinal matchup offers a bigger reward. Region 3’s top seeds will clash at 1 p.m. in Velva for a chance to play in the Dakota Bowl on Nov. 15.

“They are who I thought they were,” said Velva head coach Larry Sandy about his Aggies. “The majority of the kids have been around and have experience. I’ve learned more about the younger kids than anything, but we are still a work in progress here.”

Velva leads the all-time series 16-15. Last season, the Lions clinched the Region 3 regular-season title with a narrow 35-34 victory over the Aggies in Velva.

Ryan’s last state championship came in 1999, as the Lions defeated Lisbon 43-13 in the Class AA final. Velva went back-to-back in 2009 and 2010, beating Langdon 20-0 and Milnor 25-20 in consecutive Class A finals.

“It’s a great tradition of football over there with great coaches,” Coleman said about Velva. “This will be a whole new ballgame both ways. Both teams are going to have to fight for every yard.”

When diving into each team’s strengths, it’s important to consider the ground game. Both teams employ a two-headed rushing attack, and the Aggies rushed for all five of their touchdowns in this season’s prior matchup.

Velva junior running backs Gage Florence and Tyson Tomlinson provide lethal weapons for the Aggies. Tomlinson’s breakaway speed creates problems, and Florence’s game has shades of a young Darren Sproles — if he finds just a sliver of space, watch out.

Juniors Logan Merck and Jaxon Feller are Ryan’s top rushers. I’ve seen Feller scratch and claw for every yard, and Merck’s slippery running style and low center of gravity remind me of prime Maurice Jones-Drew.

Junior Nick Sanders will take snaps behind center for the Lions, while the Aggies will counter with fellow junior Jersey Selzler. When I spoke with the quarterbacks this week, both were all business.

“I don’t really talk that much,” Sanders said. “I’ve started to talk a little bit more because I’m the quarterback, but I like to let my play do the talking for me. I grew up in a family that doesn’t talk that much. We let our actions speak for themselves.”

Added Selzler: “We’re a family. We like to stick together. We have ups and downs, but we know that we are a family in the end.”

Velva has scored 384 points this season, while Ryan has tallied 511 of their own. With some snow and rain showers in the forecast, I’m interested to see how both teams operate on the offensive end.

While that might be ambiguous, one thing is for certain. Lion and Aggie supporters alike will travel to Velva this afternoon to represent their sides.

“I’m expecting a packed house,” Sandy said. “There should be a really good showing from both communities.”

It’s mano a mano November football. If you are a pigskin purist, I don’t think you can ask for anything better.

This is the opinion of Jimmy Lafakis. He covers Minot High School sports and Class B high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @JJLII30.

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