Nov. 1—MITCHELL — With a trip to the DakotaDome within view, the margins separating teams in the state football semifinals tend to shrink.
Oftentimes, matchups, tendencies and trends go a long way to deciding who moves on and who goes home.
For each semifinal matchup featuring Mitchell-area teams, here's one burning question that could decide the winners come Friday night.
Which team executes better?
It sounds simple, but what more can be expected from two hard-nosed, no-frills programs?
When the Warriors and Huskies met for the Class 11B state championship last season, it appeared as though the two teams were looking in the mirror at one another. Both want to dominate at the line of scrimmage, and whichever wins that battle up front more frequently will likely earn one more game.
In that last meeting, the Huskies carved out an advantage and won by a single score to deny Winner a three-peat. But two years ago, the Warriors welcomed EPJ to Warrior Field in the semifinals and ran away with a blowout victory. It's safe to say each team will be sufficiently motivated to win the rubber match.
Of note, Winner hasn't lost in its last 36 games at Warrior Field, a streak that stretches back to September 2018. As such, the onus is on EPJ to elevate its level of play that much further in an attempt to unseat the Warriors.
Which defense comes up with the most stops?
In a meeting of the top two scoring offenses and defenses in Class 9AA, the statistical separation between Parkston and Hamlin is already slim. Both sides score better than 45 points per game, while the defenses allow less than tight points per outing.
However, the Trojans' defense, which has registered eight shutouts in 10 games and six straight since Sept. 15, has been the No. 1 force to contend with on either side of the ball all season. With 20 total points allowed, Parkston is on a historic pace, but the Hamlin attack is no slouch.
On the other side, Hamlin's defense will have to find a way to slow down the multi-headed rushing threat the Trojans present, as Hanson (twice) was the only team to hold Parkston below 42 points in a game this season.
This contest feels destined to be a low-scoring, defensive-driven affair, meaning the squad to create the most opportunities for their offense via turnovers and winning the field position battle will be in the driver's seat.
Which passing game creates the most big plays?
Both Platte-Geddes and Howard have built their brand on the pillars of running the football on offense and stopping the run on defense. But this year more so than most years in recent memory, the Black Panthers and the Tigers aren't shy about going to the air.
Howard has an established, multi-year starter behind center in senior Taiden Hoyer, who has already quarterbacked the Tigers to a state championship in 2021. Opposite, the Black Panthers offer several different looks with Jye Bailey, Parker Bailey and Joey Foxley all taking their turn running the offense, most frequently with Jye, a sophomore, being the one to air it out.
If both defenses hold firm, which they have for much of the season against tough Class 9AA schedules, it could likely fall on Hoyer and Bailey to move the football and decide the game.
Though conditions during the quarterfinal round made passing difficult, both teams faced offenses that were more than capable of doing damage in the passing game — Platte-Geddes grounded Freeman/Marion/Freeman Academy and Howard took down Elkton-Lake Benton — passing those tests with flying colors.
Which star rises to the occasion?
Both Warner and Canistota have complete teams and have been in the nine-man football mix for many years. But the current iterations of the Monarchs and Hawks clearly have one player that makes the whole machine run smoothly.
Hunter Cramer played the role of dual-threat quarterback in leading the Monarchs to the championship game a season ago. Tage Ortman, himself a dual threat, has been a mainstay at quarterback for the Hawks (and previously the Canistota/Freeman Pride) with a state championship game appearance in 2021.
Cramer is a big game player, having put forth a standout performance in a championship loss last season and having scored the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of perhaps the Monarchs' biggest game of the regular season against Class 9B powerhouse Faulkton Area. Ortman, meanwhile, is coming off of a seven-touchdown performance in the quarterfinals, which guided Canistota to an eye-popping 70-19 victory over Gregory.
The Monarchs and Hawks met in last season's quarterfinals, Canistota sprinting to a 31-14 halftime lead before Warner surged to a 48-31 win. Whoever put forward the better outing between Cramer and Ortman will likely decide which way the rematch tilts.
Which team takes control first?
Though both Avon and De Smet enter with two losses on their records, neither has lost to another Class 9B foe this season.
In their wins, the Pirates and Bulldogs have largely controlled the opposition, with only three games between them decided by a single score.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two sides is defensively. De Smet hasn't allowed more than 12 points in a win this season, while Avon has played in a few higher-scoring affairs. In what figures to be a tight battle, whichever side's style wins out could swing the contest.
Another factor could be home-field advantage, which Avon will have on Friday. The Pirates are 6-0 at home this season, including a combined score of 92-28 in their two playoff victories. The Bulldogs are 3-1 away from home, the lone loss to Class 9AA Stanley County by eight points.