BLUE EARTH - The perfect season and the Minnesota Class AAA state football championship.
Rochester Lourdes mentor Mike Kesler and his No. 1-ranked Eagles (13-0) will clash with Blue Earth Area head coach Randy Kuechenmeister and his No. 2-rated Bucs (12-0) for the right to earn both rarities at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Factor out the public vs. private school scenario, and the Prep Bowl showdown will feature two programs that are near carbon copies of one another.
PIVOTAL STOP — Blue Earth Area defensive end Steven Plocker (middle) drags down Perham punter Sam Muer (30) for no gain during a fake-punt run during Class AAA state semifinal football action last Saturday at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Perham’s Patrick Glynn (37) looks on. Photo by Leanna Becker
"I look at Blue Earth (Area) and I see the same stuff that we run," said Kesler, whose option offense generates 34.6 points per game compared to Kuechenmeister's spread offense that scores at a 34.3-point clip. "They probably pass the ball a little more than we do, but we might have a slight size advantage over them in the line."
Eagle senior standout Sam Muehlenbein, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound two-way starter, will literally represent a big challenge for both the Bucs' space-creating blockers and sure-handed tacklers in the trenches.
"He's a horse on both sides of the ball," Kuechenmeister said in reference to Lourdes' imposing center and defensive tackle.
"He's the best football player on our team," Kesler said in reference to the highly-recruited Muehlenbein. "He was the starting center on our 2010 state championship team, and he's a big reason why we've already shattered the school rushing record this season."
Lourdes' potent four-pronged rushing attack of sophomore tailback Griff Slightam, rotating fullbacks and twin brothers McKay and Kane Carstens, and quarterback Mark Pagel has amassed a staggering 5,055 yards of total offense, including 4,391 on the ground.
"They are a run-first option team that's patient and doesn't panic. They stuck with the run and eventually wore down Annandale during the fourth quarter last Saturday," Kuechenmeister said in reference to the Eagles' 20-16 state semifinal comeback victory over the Cardinals.
Pagel, who gained 62 of Lourdes' 283 rushing yards on 11 carries, scored the eventual game-winning touchdown on a 14-yard scramble - the second of his scores via the Metrodome turf.
Ironically, Slightam, who tops the Eagles with 1,350 rushing yards and 16 TDs on the season, gained just 54 yards on 14 totes against Annandale. The Carstens twins, however, balanced out the equation as McKay led the way with 94 yards on 14 carries, while Kane produced 73 yards and one TD on 13 handles.
Kane Carstens enters Saturday's season finale with 955 yards and 10 TDs on 116 totes, while McKay Carstens has netted 890 yards and 15 scores on 113 carries.
"Our backfield is pretty balanced, so defenses cannot key on just one player," said Kesler. "The Carstens anchored last spring's 4x200-meter state championship (track & field) relay team, while Griff (Slightam) plays on a select hockey team in the winter. And Pagel, well, he's just a good overall athlete."
While Pagel has completed 33 of 84 passes for 656 yards and just four TDs through 13 games this fall, Blue Earth Area junior quarterback Kysten Zierke has posted impressive dual-role offensive numbers of his own.
The 6-0, 205-pound Zierke has connected on 68 of 143 spirals for 1,015 yards and 10 TDs to complement a team-best 972 rushing yards and 18 more scores. The hard-running signal-caller hammered out a game-high 109 yards to top the maroon-and-gold's 31-21 state semifinal victory over Perham last Saturday at the Metrodome.
"No. 15 (Zierke) just bounces off of people when they try to tackle him, and he throws a nice 5- to 7-yard pass," said Kesler. "When you look at their line and their backs, they are both athletic and physical - the same as us."
Like Lourdes, Blue Earth Area has used its high-octane four-speared ground game to generate an incredible 4,216 total yards of offense, including 3,192 via the rush.
Flanker Gus Phillips, who enters the state championship game with 708 yards and six TDs on 76 carries, chalked up 54 of the Bucs' 288 rushing yards at Perham's expense a week ago.
Fullback Carter Hanson and running back David Franta, who have netted 574 and 570 rushing yards on the season, respectively, balanced out Blue Earth Area's highly-effective running effort with 69 and 65 yards last Saturday. Franta boosted his TD total to nine overall with three scores against Perham, while Hanson remained at six rushing TDs, but did catch a pass for six points.
"No. 3 (Hanson) is the real deal, especially on defense. He's in on every play and tough to block," said Kesler. "I'm impressed with the way Blue Earth's (Area) defense pursues to the ball. That's a championship defense."
The Bucs' stingy 4-3 defensive scheme has allowed a miniscule 11.0 points per outing, while the Eagles' smothering 4-4 defensive set surrenders a meager 13.5 points per game.
As expected, Hanson and Zierke rev Blue Earth Area's defensive engines from their middle and outside linebacker positions, respectively, while inside backers Kurt Bieniek and Kyle Kapraun do likewise for Lourdes.
"It's going to be a heckuva matchup between our teams. I'm looking forward to a great game," said Kesler.
"Our players have executed everything that's been asked of them all season long, and that's what it all comes down to - making the plays at the right time," said Kuechenmeister. "It's an unbelievable feeling to be playing for a state championship, and we're looking forward to the challenge."