MINNEAPOLIS - Coming into the season, the Minneota/Lincoln HI co-op for football was facing uncertainty, but on Friday the Vikings put that all behind them as they play for the Class AA State Football Championship.
"There were a lot of question marks where our program was going, the direction with Lincoln HI and the co-op," said Minneota/Lincoln HI head coach Chad Johnston. "There were a lot of distractions in the off season, so for this group to put it together and be able to put all those distractions aside and focus on football this year, really come together, is amazing. They are playing well as a team."
The Vikings, who made the jump from single-A to double-A carry a 13-0 record into their championship match-up with Chatfield.
Photo by Stephen Wiblemo, The Hutchinson Leader
Minneota/Lincoln HI's Cole Hennen begins to return a kickoff that would stretch 60 yards and set up a Vikings touchdown three plays later against Maple Lake during the semifinals of the MSHSL?Class 2A Football State Tournament on Nov. 14 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Minneota/Lincoln HI finished the season as the No. 4 ranked team in Class AA while the Gophers (12-1) were ranked No. 9.
Chatfield keeps the ball on the ground with senior Jacob Neis as their primary weapon. Neis has 1,671 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. Four touchdowns and 233 yards came against Hawley in the semifinals.
"It's pretty obvious they are a very run-oriented team. They are able to do some things with the ball," Johnston said. "(Neis) has good speed and he runs hard. He's not that guy that jukes and jives. He has good moves, but he won't hesitate to run you over either. He's a pretty straight-forward runner. He runs pretty straight and pretty hard. He's a solid kid."
Though the Gophers don't go to the air often, they have the ability to break the big play. Senior quarterback Nate Skare is 44-of-89 passing on the senior.
"Anytime you have a team that is so run-oriented, the play action pass becomes that much more effective when they're having success with the run game," said Johnston. "If you can contain the run game a bit and force them into those third and long situations, you can kind of expect that pass a little bit and loosen up a bit more.
"They are going to take some deep balls and he has some good targets to throw to. That's always going to be a concern," Johnston added. "You can do a nice job and all of a sudden you give up a 50-yard touchdown pass and it kind of defeats the purpose of what you're trying to do."
Offensively, the Vikings will continue to work their balanced attack. Chatfield has had success defensively, holding teams to an average of 9.8 points per game this season.
"From what we've seen from watching tape, when teams try to spread them out, there are times where they try to play with only six guys in the box," said Johnston. "If we are in a four-receiver set and can establish a running game with that, it will be key. They are almost daring you to do that with six men in the box."
Late in the season injuries are always a concern. Johnston and the coaching staff has used the extra practice time to rest a few guys while giving backups a better chance to prepare.
"We have a few guys banged up, so we've kept them out of practice," Johnston said. "Last week was getting a lot of the twos reps and making sure guys are prepared if someone was to get hurt in the game."
Junior Cole Hennen is the main question mark for the Vikings heading into game day with a few others battling smaller injuries.
"We're not sure how much he's going to be able to play," said Johnston. "He's going to play with whatever pain he can tolerate. It's been getting some other guys some reps in case he can't go."
The players and coaches will also have Thanksgiving to contend with, but the team and fans are taking it in stride, getting anxious to play for a potential state championship.
"It's unfortunate that it kind of falls in that family time, but I think everyone is in the same boat where this is a rare occasion," Johnston said. Everyone is excited about it, so there really haven't been any issues. We're going to go up Thursday night, spend the night in a hotel. We're going to be pulling kids away from families a bit, but I think everyone is so excited about the position we're in that they live with that."