Revenge was extra sweet for the Dawson-Boyd Blackjacks, as they avenged their only loss of the last two years by beating Minneota/Lincoln HI 42-21 in the Section 5A football championship last Friday to advance to their second straight Class A state tournament appearance.
Whereas last year the Blackjacks were making their first-ever trip to state, they are now entering the tournament as the defending champions. Tonight, third-ranked Dawson-Boyd returns to Big Cat Stadium in Morris, where the team began its dominant state tournament run a year ago, ready to face Section 6A champion Browerville.
Again, Dawson-Boyd sends a talented team with title aspirations, but senior receiver/defensive back Nathaniel Huot said the Blackjacks can't get ahead of themselves.
"We do want to repeat and that's in the back of our minds, but we just have to go in and play each game, because if we think about wanting to repeat, you know, that was kind of in the back of our minds at the beginning of the season where we were kind of playing with a not-to-lose mentality, and I think that's what hurt us when we played Minneota during the season," Huot said. "We just have to go in there to play to win, play our hearts out and hopefully get the job done."
The Blackjacks (10-1 overall) lack a couple of the playmakers they had last year in running back Esten Weber and receiver Zach Stelter, both of whom now play collegiately, but as they showed in their impressive win over the fourth-ranked Vikings in the 5A final, they still have the talent to take down the state's top teams.
Huot is one of those talented players. The 6-1, 190-pound receiver had a career day in the section championship with three touchdown catches and one touchdown run. He had nine grabs for 217 yards, and three carries for 33 yards.
Two of Dawson-Boyd's running backs are done for the season with injuries, and leading rusher Justin Lee isn't at 100 percent as he is still recovering from a hamstring injury. For Huot to have such a strong performance in such an important game was huge for his team.
"It's something we certainly weren't expecting, but we'll gladly take," Dawson-Boyd head coach Cory Larson said. "It's kind of what you hope for out of a senior is that they step up, and with a couple of our running backs banged up, someone had the opportunity to make some more plays, and he certainly took advantage of that."
Junior quarterback Joey Lee joins Huot and Justin Lee as a player who steps up in big games, which he has shown both last year and this year. He completed 13 of 15 passes for 283 yards and four touchdowns in last week's win, and in last year's state semifinal against Blooming Prairie he scored seven total touchdowns in a 50-27 win.
The playmakers are there, and as seen in the Blackjacks' past two games, the offensive and defensive lines are also playing their best football of the season. Against Canby, the Dawson-Boyd line held Wyatt Kraus, one of the state's leading rushers, to just 51 yards on the ground. And last week, the Blackjacks put constant pressure on Minneota/Lincoln HI quarterback Austin Buysse and held the Vikings to 92 rushing yards in an impressive performance.
"I feel our line has improved through the whole season," Huot said. "During the first couple games we were a little shaky during a couple parts of the game. They'd have their spurts where they would play really well, then they'd miss a couple of assignments here or there. But in these last playoff games they've really stepped up and really limited their mistakes, which has helped us a ton."
Strong play from the line will be key against Browerville (9-2), a team that won the battle up front in the Section 6A title game to knock off top-seeded Pillager 20-7 last Friday in the Fargodome.
"They're not a huge team, but they play bigger than what they are," Larson said. "They get off the ball extremely well up front. They're a good, physical, strong group.
"... Nobody appears to take a play off. Everybody plays hard on offense and defense for them and I've been impressed with what I've seen on film of Browerville."
Tigers quarterback Mitchell Heid threw three touchdown passes on 7 of 7 passing for 156 yards in the first half of that game. Though they were successful in the passing game against Pillager, Larson said the Tigers are a team that would prefer to move the ball on the ground with their veer offense.
"It's weird because they'll go double tight and run veer, or they'll go double twins out of shotgun, and really what they're trying to do is still run the veer, but they may throw it a few more times, too," he said. "It's a pretty well-balanced team. They're very capable of throwing it."
Browerville averages 25.1 points per game, which doesn't crack the top 20 in the state in Class A. Where the Tigers excel at is on defense, where they rank seventh in points allowed at 13.1 points per game. Pillager averaged over 42 points per game during the season, ranking in the top three in Class A in scoring offense, but was held to just seven against Browerville.
Dawson-Boyd sports a top-five offense and defense, ranking second in the state in scoring at 43.1 points per game, and fourth in points allowed at 10.8 points per game.
They Blackjacks have another dominant team and have made another state tournament appearance. Now they hope they can execute well during the tournament to bring another state title home to Dawson.
"It's going to be a little different the second time around," Larson said. "It's exciting for everybody, the kids and coaches, and you just have to enjoy these things while they last."
The Class A quarterfinal between the Blackjacks and Tigers will kick off tonight at 7 p.m. in Morris.