VERMILLION — Playing a style of football dear to the hearts of football purists everywhere, the Winner Warriors earned a second consecutive SDHSAA Class 11B state championship, knocking off the Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan Seahawks 40-8 on a wintry Friday morning inside a pleasantly warm DakotaDome.
In an era when multiple formations and no-huddle offenses are featured, Winner eschews the new-fangled four-tight formations, full-house backfields and smash mouth football. Call it old-school, retro or whatever, but call it winning ala Winner style as the 2021 title was the Warriors' sixth such feat since 2009 and ninth in program history.
Though not an exact facsimile, Friday’s win had a similar nature to Winner’s 44-0 regular season victory over the Seahawks as the Warriors jumped out quickly and took control early.
After forcing a three-and-out on the Seahawks' first possession, Winner (12-0) needed but one play to get on the scoreboard, a Kaden Keiser 61-yard scoring sprint. An ensuing Aiden Barfuss rush on the 2-point attempt gave the Warriors an 8-0 lead a mere 1:26 into the game.
The Warriors second possession was just as explosive, as Barfuss, the game’s Most Valuable Player, on the second play of the possession, scampered 33 yards for the score and again aided a 2-point run.
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Winner head coach Trent Olson pointed out that coming out strong, making an early statement and establishing early dominance was high on the list of game priorities.
“Our first two carries of the game went for touchdowns and that was huge in that it kind of got them out of what they wanted to do offensively, and the ball was in our court at that point.” Olson said. “Overall, I didn’t think we executed as well today as most games, and left some points on the field, but with that start, it was good enough and we will take it.”
Down two scores early and kept in check on the ground by an undersized Winner defensive front (Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan had minus-5 yards rushing in the opening frame), the Seahawks went to the air, though a Kaden Kaiser sack (one of four Warriors sacks in the game) and a Kaden Klumb incomplete pass led to another Seahawks punt.
“You can’t let other teams run the ball and control the clock with possession and keep our offense off the field,” Olson said. “If you are going to beat us, you have to beat us throwing the football.”
Charley Pravacek, who contributed a sack, a blocked punt and was voted the game’s MVP lineman, credited quickness and a can-do attitude as the keys to winning the battle in the trenches and limiting All-State running back Koby Kayser to 41 yards on 14 carries.
“Every game going in we know they are going to be bigger than us,” Pravacek said “Our defensive line probably averages about 200 pounds. So, we beat them with our quickness and that’s what has made us successful the last two years.”
After quickly putting the clamps on another Seahawk drive, Winner mounted a lengthy, time-consuming 13-play, 69-yard drive culminating in a 2-yard scoring plunge by quarterback Joey Cole early in the second quarter. Riley Orel added a 2-point run, expanding the Winner lead to 24-0, and closing out the first half scoring.
Hopes of a Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan (8-4) second half comeback took a serious hit in the first possession of the third quarter as Winner marched 67 yards on seven plays — the key play, a 37-yard scamper by Riley Orel — and upped the advantage to 32-0 when Cole snuck in from a yard out.
Though trailing 32-0, the Seahawks remained gritty, responding with a six play, 65-yard scoring drive behind the passing of Kaden Klumb (8 of 23, 140 yards and 1 interception), who completed aerials of 31 and 30 yards to wide receiver Jay Storm before scoring himself on a 1-yard plunge. A Klumb 2-point toss to Hunter Bailey narrowed the margin to 32-8 at the 6:39 mark of the period.
Despite struggling at time to move the ball in the second half, Winner closed out the game by scoring early in the fourth period on a Joey Cole 9-yard TD toss to junior tight end Ethans Bartels, followed by a Riley Shippy 2-point run.
“We couldn’t get big plays in the second half,” Olson said. “It seemed like plays were so close to breaking, but they were able to make tackles, and then we would have one mental mistake and have to punt. We punted as much tonight (4) as we punted all season (8). We made mistakes, but you have to give credit to Bridgewater; they played hard and are well-coached.”
Barfuss, who totaled a game-high 126 yards on 12 carries and had stellar play at linebacker, expressed an attitude that has undoubtedly contributed greatly to Winner’s successful legacy.
“It’s a great feeling to win again. I watched the 2016 season as a kid and loved that team and wanted to play like that,” Barfuss said. “And now, coming here in my first two years in high school and winning the title two years in a row is pretty great. We had a great season, but I think we could have done better today. We made quite a few mistakes, but I think next year we will come back and do the same thing.”
Game stats reflected the obvious. Winner compiled 369 yards rushing and a mere 6 yards passing. Cole completed 3 of 4 passes and scored a TD. Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan totaled 83 yards rushing, collecting most of that total during garbage time in the waning moments, and 147 yards passing.
And the old-fashioned way carried the day.