Coming into their Class 11A high school semifinal football matchup with Dakota Valley on Friday night on the road, the St. Thomas More Cavaliers were well aware they would have to stop the Panthers’ dynamic rushing attack in order to earn an opportunity at the state title game.

Along with its tough defense, Dakota Valley used that strong ground game to run past St. Thomas More for a 34-11 victory and a trip to the DakotaDome for the state championship game next Saturday.

The Panther rushing attack finished the game with 338 yards on 53 carries, with three different running backs carrying for at least 80 yards.

While the ground game is an important aspect of the game, Dakota Valley coach Jeff VanDenHul credited his defense for showing up in Friday’s game, as well as the rest of the season.

“It comes down to that in any game, coaches can only take them so far,” he said. “Then on Friday night, it’s up to the players and they responded. It wasn’t just the second half, our defense has been great all year. They have really risen to the occasion numerous times.”

After a scoreless first quarter, it wasn’t the Dakota Valley’s running game that would find the end zone first as Zack Poulsen connected with Luke Johnson on a 36-yard pass to take the 6-0 advantage early in the second.

A little over three minutes later, the Panthers added to their early lead when Sam Chesterman scored on a 16-yard run.

Trailing 13-0, the Cavs took a little momentum into the half as Joe Poeppel hit a 20-yard field goal to cap off an 18-play drive to close out first two quarters of play.

Unfortunately for STM, the second half wouldn't be any easier as the Panthers kicked off the second half with a 9-yard touchdown scamper from Austin Carter with 8:26 remaining in the third quarter.

Dakota Valley’s Nate Rice took a handoff 41 yards to the house to give the Panthers the 27-3 advantage to close out the third quarter.

Ryan Hughes closed out the scoring for the Panthers in the opening moments of the fourth quarter, scoring on a 1-yard plunge to extend the lead to 34-3.

Jake Bohenkamp, who replaced Ryder Kirsch and Cane Cavanaugh after both went out with injuries, scored the final touchdown of the season on a 30-yard pass to Thomas Rafferty with 1:41 remaining in regulation.

With the season coming to an end for the Cavaliers, head coach Wayne Sullivan gave credit to Dakota Valley, while also talking about the 13 seniors the who would be graduating this next year.

“Hats off to Dakota Valley, they are a very good football team,” Sullivan told the Journal in a telephone conversation. “There is a reason they are undefeated. I think we shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times. I commend our boys; they played with their hearts and played all four quarters. It’ll be hard to see the seniors go. I spent so much time with them; it is almost like they’re my own kids.”

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Rice led the Panthers with eight carries for 114 yards and a score, while Chesterman chipped in with 12 carries for 93 yards.

Jake Larson had to pick up the slack for the Cavs with all the injuries on the offensive side, rushing for 76 yards on 18 carries, while catching four passes for 41 yards.

Bohenkamp finished 3-for-3 for 81 yards and Shay Casey pulled in three receptions for 60 yards.

Considering STM opened the season with two losses in its first three games, Sullivan knew it would be a bit of an uphill battle the rest of the way. He credited his team for overcoming the odds.

“The way we started our season, nobody thought we could make it to the final four,” he said. “By the end of the season, our kids were playing their hearts out and we just didn’t execute as well as we would’ve liked to. You have to be perfect to get to the championship game. Our seniors kept their hearts in it and they kept Cavalier football where it is at. After 27 years of coaching, it doesn’t get any easier, but I know these seniors are going to graduate and become fine young men.”

Dakota Valley (11-0) will go on to play top ranked Madison for the 11A championship next Saturday at noon.

St. Thomas More’s season ends at 8-3.

Jerry Giese of the Sioux City Journal contributed to this report.

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