— A trip to the state tournament has been on the minds of everyone within the
Litchfield football team
ever since its 2022 season was ended by Dassel-Cokato in the Section 2AAA semifinals last Oct. 29.
Fast forward a season later and the Dragons face Dassel-Cokato in the Section 2AAA championship with a trip to state on the line. The section final is set for 7 p.m. Friday at Buffalo High School. Litchfield is the top-seed and the Dragons are the second seed.
Litchfield, ranked fourth in Class AAA, is 8-1 with its loss coming against No. 3 Annandale in its season-opener Sept. 1. The Chargers, who are ranked No. 7, are also 8-1 and their one loss came against the Dragons in Week 5 on Sept. 30.
"The kids are excited," Litchfield head coach Jim Jackman said. "A lot of these kids know kids over (at Dassel-Cokato) because they pair with them, whether its in hockey or wrestling. ... Obviously it's a nice rivalry between the two schools."
Litchfield senior running back/linebacker Lukas Kuehl added, "The coaches have really pushed us this year to be the best that we can be. Over the summer, we were always outside working together, always putting in the work, and in the weight room, we were lifting almost every single day."
Dassel-Cokato, which was the Class AAA champion in 2021, has knocked out the Dragons in each of the last two seasons in section play and held a 4-0 overall record against Litchfield in that span.
But, for the Dragons, who beat Dassel-Cokato 14-13 earlier this year, they will have to find a way to get past the Chargers a second time to get back to the state tournament for the first time since 2006. Litchfield won the Section 2AAA championship in 2020 but the state tournament was not held due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The last couple years they've taken it to us a little bit and then this year we got them," Jackman said of the Chargers. "It just comes down to taking care of the football. The team that usually takes care of the football has a pretty good chance of winning."
Dassel-Cokato's offense is run-heavy. The Chargers utilize a T-formation, which features the quarterback under center with three backs in the backfield. That scheme is led by senior quarterback Caleb Thinesen and running backs in senior Monte Gillman and juniors Caleb Smock and Kobee Thielen.
"They do a great job of coaching their kids up and they're a team that does not make mistakes," Jackman said. "We just have to find a way to play good defense, tackle well and not get caught up in the play-action pass."
As for the Dragons, they will be looking to execute their run-heavy offense as well.
"We just got to move the sticks," Jackman said. "We got to find a way to keep adding, and obviously, not losing yards and keep featuring the backs that we have."
Kuehl, who is listed at 6-foot, 180 pounds, will be at the forefront of Litchfield's running game. Also in that mix will be TJ Christensen, who's a senior fullback listed at 6-3, 200, and Brandon Jansky, a junior running back listed at 5-8, 145.
"We want to be able to run the ball," Jackman said. "We have to find a way to continue to move the ball around and push the ball up the field. Our offensive line has done a fabulous job."
Friday night's match-up should make for a tight game between two of the top teams in Class AAA.
"People coming out to watch the game on Friday night should see a real good competitive football game," Jackman said.
The Dragons, who have 18 seniors on their roster, hope there are many weeks to come in their 2023 season.
"We've put in so much work and effort over these past four years that it would just be crazy for us and the community," Kuehl said.
Jackman added, "We don't want it to end. We want to keep playing and keep practicing and keep hanging out. ... Hopefully we'll find a way to continue to play for a few weeks."