No. 7 Fairmont gridders travel to New Ulm

Brady Allen

NEW ULM — No. 1, finally.

Class 3A, No. 7-rated Fairmont (6-1) squeezed by Sibley East (7-0) for the top spot in the QRF’s Section 3 rankings on Monday.

Now, the Cardinals need to hold New Ulm quarterback Hunter Ranweiler, record-setting receiver Connor Foley and their teammates in check during Wednesday night’s 7 p.m. regular-season finale to accomplish a first in Mat Mahoney’s 11 years at Fairmont’s helm.

“I’ve never coached a team that earned the No. 1 seed in the playoffs,” said Mahoney, who engineered Class AAA state bids in both 2011 and 2013. “It’s an important game to help us finish what we’ve started. After six weeks, we finally inched our way up to No. 1 in the QRF — now we need to maintain it to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.”

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, their high-octane offense lost leading rusher and No. 2 receiver Mario Maldonado to both a broken tibia and fibula during Fairmont’s first possession of Friday night’s 27-7 victory over Belle Plaine.

“Mar’s a big loss to our team. He runs the ball, catches passes, pass-protects and run-blocks well. He does all the intangibles that don’t show up in a boxscore,” said Mahoney.

In fact, Maldonado not only made 15 receptions for 113 yards, but handled 32 percent of the Cardinals’ total carries on the season — 79 for a team-best 322 yards and two touchdowns.

“Realistically, we (staff) need to do a better job of coaching up our players who will replace him (Maldonado),” said Mahoney. “We don’t have a ton of experience back there, but we have depth.”

Fairmont offensive coordinator Brian Wille will likely rely a little more on quarterback Nate Kallenbach and the his high-torque passing game against New Ulm’s 4-3 defensive scheme on the turf.

Kallenbach has thrown for a career-best 1,566 yards and 17 TDs, with 6-foot-3 wideout Wyatt Quiring being his favorite target this fall. Quiring has garnered team-bests of 47 receptions for 689 yards and eight TDs.

While Quiring’s numbers rank among the best in southern Minnesota, the 6-3 Foley established the state’s all-time single-game receiving yards record with 320 in a 57-25 loss to Jordan last Friday.

Foley, who produced 279 receiving yards during a Week 2 victory over Worthington, made scoring catches of 71, 75, 64 and 5 yards, respectively, during his record-setting night against the Hubmen.

“Foley’s a heckuva wide receiver. He’s coming off breaking the state record for receiving yards in a game, so you know he’s the real deal,” said Mahoney. “He does a great job of adjusting to the ball in space, and makes plays for them to keep the chains moving.”

The only question mark prior to Wednesday’s South Central Red District clash’s kickoff was Ranweiler’s playing status. Ranweiler, who’s been the main trigger man behind Foley’s 14 TDs and single-season school-record 991 receiving yards in 2017, exited last week’s game due to a knee injury.

“We’re just taking it day-by-day. (Today) he’ll go through another practice and we’ll see how he feels,” New Ulm head coach Corey Kneeshaw said in reference to his 6-foot, 160-pound quarterback. “The X-rays on Saturday didn’t show any structural damage to his knee, and he’ll wear a brace as a precaution.

“If the trainer says he’s good to go, and he feels he’s good to go, then he’ll play. If not, he won’t. I’d never risk a kid’s health to win a game.”

Ranweiler threw the first TD pass to Foley against Jordan before exiting due to the injury. Ironically, the player snapping the football to Ranweiler — 5-10, 205-pound center Tyler Walls — moved to quarterback and threw for 292 yards and Foley’s last three TDs.

“What can I say? We’re a pass-happy offense that I brought to Minnesota with me from California,” said Kneeshaw.

In order to apply pressure on either Ranweiler or Walls, Fairmont defensive coordinator Brad Johnson’s 4-3 alignment will have to shed the blocks by an Eagles’ offensive line that averages 212 pounds per player, including left tackle Joe Fortwengler (6-3, 240).

The Cardinals’ 4-3 defense, anchored by 6-4, 320-pound tackle Justin Byrne, has only allowed 99.3 rushing and 164.8 passing yards per game en route to holding opponents to a clip of 13.3 points.

The Section 3AAA playoffs kick off next Tuesday night at the high seeds’ home fields.

“I really believe this is a much bigger game for us than Fairmont,” said Kneeshaw. “We don’t want to be the sixth seed and have to open the (Section 2AAAA) playoffs by traveling to Waseca or Marshall.

“If we beat Fairmont, the win might propel us to the fifth seed, and I like our chances a whole lot better there.”