Three games into the season, the St. Thomas More football team was basically fighting for its playoffs life — 20 straight years of qualifying for the playoffs to be exact.
Now, the Cavaliers are where they want to be, in the Class A state semifinals Friday night against Dakota Valley in North Sioux City. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. MT at Robert L. Peterson Memorial Stadium.
“It’s our goal every year … for a Black Hills Conference title and state title. Now we have a chance to get to the state championship game,” veteran STM coach Wayne Sullivan said.
Rewind to early September and the Cavaliers, at 1-2 in a very competitive Class A field, were in trouble. Even with winning their final six games, they were the sixth seed going into last week’s game at No. 3 Dell Rapids.
The Cavaliers found a way late to beat the Quarriers 21-20 and get one step closer to the Dakota Dome in Vermillion.
“I think that was one of the signature wins of our program,” Sullivan said. “To win against a program such as Dell Rapids, which has won four or five state titles; their program is unheralded. To go down there and come away with a victory really did show our kids that we can play with the big boys. We tell them that the only 60 people that have to believe that are the team and coaches. They did.”
Senior receiver Thomas Rafferty said tonight’s game is a big opportunity for the team. He said they have been hoping for this moment for a long time.
“It was kind of a rough road, but it is really exciting to have the opportunity to play in the semifinal game,” Rafferty said. “STM has a winning tradition and we had never been in that situation before, we never had to worry about if we were going to get in. We started at the bottom of the list (sixth seed), but we beat the upper list, which is nice.”
Unofficially, the Cavaliers playoffs began in game four through game nine. One loss and they were likely done.
Senior running back/linebacker Jake Larson said the two early losses, especially against West Central, woke them up.
“We still had confidence then, but we didn’t show up to play,” he said. “That has driven us to become where we are now. After knocking off Dell, our confidence is higher than it ever has been.”
Sophomore quarterback Ryder Kirsch has been a key in the team’s finish, and last week’s win — his first playoff victory as a starter — and he said it felt good.
“It was a good team win. It gave us a lot more confidence because no one really predicted us to go East River and beat a good team like Dell Rapids,” Kirsch said.
At 6-foot-6 inches and 175 pounds, Kirsch has been outstanding since he was inserted into the starting lineup, passing for over 1,800 yards and 27 touchdowns.
“One of the things is he can extend the plays and he is always looking downfield and finding the open receiver,” said Sullivan. “The guys are very good coming back to him if he comes out of the pocket. Up front, we have gotten better as well. Our run game has rushed for over 1,100 yards and that really opens it up."
Sullivan said that Larson has been a leader by example because he goes 100 miles per hour and he is the catalyst who gets the team excited.
“When Jake’s motor gets going, he only runs one way and that is downhill and that is hard,” Sullivan said. “That gets us fired up. When he moves the pile the hard way, the kids really step it up.”
As well as the STM offense has played, its defense has been just as impressive, and especially against Dakota Valley, it will be most critical for the Cavs' success.
Dakota Valley has averaged 42 points a game with a running attack among the best in the state, led by Sam Chesterman and Austin Carter.
Larson said the STM defense has to stop the run.
“We know Dakota Valley is a great team and will run the ball. If we stop them, we’ll come out with a victory,” Larson said.
Longtime defensive coordinator Craig Nowotny tweaked the STM defense — he actually went back to the old schemes that led the program to a couple of early title-game appearances.
The Cavs have given up just 72 points in their last seven games, including three shutouts.
“Defensively Coach made a couple of changes on the scheme to what we used to play the first couple of years when we went to the Dome; a scheme against a good running game,” Sullivan said. “The boys have been adjusting to that and executing it very well.”
Dakota Valley is 10-0 on the season and rolled past Pine Ridge 58-0 in its quarterfinal game.
Sullivan said they are up against a very good athletic East River team.
“We have to make sure to read our keys and be fundamentally sound, and make sure we finish drives,” he said. “That’s what we focused on this week, getting to the point of attack and making sure we don’t stall drives on our own penalties.”
Turnovers are key, as in any football game.
“We have to eliminate turnovers and stop them so they don’t burn out the clock with their run game. The little things are what it is going to come down to, and execution,” Sullivan said.
It’s time to put it all together, Kirsch and Larson agreed.
“We’re just playing together and working really well as a team,” Kirsch said. “All of the pieces are together for us.”
“If we win this game it will show how good of a team we really are,” Larson added. “We’re ready to step up to the plate and hopefully come away with a W.”
In the other semifinal game, No. 1 Madison is hosting a No. 5 Milbank.