Bucs face Arrows in AA state tilt

STATELY BUCS — The Blue Earth Area Bucs play Pipestone Area in an 8 p.m. Class AA state football quarterfinal tonight in New Ulm. Members of the Blue Earth Area team include, front row (l-r): Damian Cornelio, Blake Barnett, Jonah Legred, Joe Schavey, Zach Buseman, Jordan Huse, Wyatt Tungland, Rylee McGuire, Karson Legred, Dalton Nagel, Clayton Johnson and Owen Naumann. 2nd row: Alex Frommie, Brayden Barnett, Hunter Bleess, Dominic Whitlow, CJ Germann, Caden Ochsendorf, Colin Hurley, Koby Nagel, Isaac Martinez, Akeira Morrow, Adam Griffin and Jared Kennedy. 3rd row: PJ Christensen, Alex Reese, Isaac Soria, Erik Anderson, Nathan Counts, Caelan Sanders, Keagan Ihle, Parker Kienitz, Jacob Vaske, Jacob Lempkie and Trevor Oppedal. 4th row: Zac Murphy, Julius Holzer, Casey Thompson, Jack Barke, Cooper Amundson, Davis Sunken, Jaxen Klinkner, Caleb Beeler, Carter Bell and Jacob Beeler. Not pictured: Ricky Peterson, Grace Woltmann, Xavier Morrow and Jack Frundt. (Photo by Charlie Sorrells)

BLUE EARTH — Waterville-Elysian-Morristown was the No. 2 seed with only three losses on the season and the No. 3-seeded Blue Earth Area Bucs posted a 21-14 win on Oct. 29 in the Section 2AA football semifinals.

Maple River, the eighth-ranked team in Class AA, was the No. 1 seed and had only lost once, but Blue Earth Area edged the Eagles 11-10 in the section championship. The Bucs, who entered the playoffs 4-4, are tried, tested and ready for tonight’s 8 p.m. state quarterfinal.

“The thing I like about them is that they’ve shown some grit, the ability to hang in there and keep battling and the ability to make the plays at the end that’s needed,” Bucs head coach Randy Kuechenmeister said about his team.

The Bucs (7-4) open the Class AA state quarterfinals against No. 6-ranked Pipestone Area (10-1) at 8 p.m. tonight on the turf field in New Ulm.

Junior quarterback Cody Thompson threw the 10-yard game-winning score to Isaiah Byrnes in overtime to lift the Arrows to the 20-17 win over No. 5-rated Redwood Valley, avenging the 29-14 loss to the Cardinals in Week 5. Thomas Amberg had kicked a 21-yard field goal at the start of overtime for the Cardinals’ only lead of the game.

The Bucs are hoping for the same vengeance after the Arrows beat them 7-0 in Week 7 — the team’s last loss before its current four-game win streak. Despite holding the Arrows, who average 31 points per game, to one score a month ago, there’s only one game that matters for Kuechenmeister and Co.

“What we did last game doesn’t matter this game. What they (Pipestone Area) did last game doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter what you’ve done all year. What matters is what you’re going to do the night you play. That’s the bottom line,” Kuechenmeister said. “Usually, it comes down to who executes the best, turnovers, limiting the big plays, that type of thing. I anticipate this would be very similar.”

The Bucs have relied on their defense for most of the season, which allowed 22.6 points per game and shut out four opponents. Senior linebacker/defensive end Rylee McGuire leads the defense with 85 total tackles, while sophomore safety Caelan Sanders has six interceptions, three of which came against Maple River in the section championship.

Future Minnesota Gopher lineman Trevor Oppedal, who played for the Bucs in the 2015 state quarterfinals, leads the team with 3 1/2 sacks along with 55 tackles, while senior defensive tackle Jordan Huse has recovered three fumbles this season.

“(Defensive coordinator Travis ‘Doc’ Armstrong) does a good job getting them in the right position and then the kids have done a good job of doing their assignment,” Kuechenmeister said. “Defense is where you start, that’s first and foremost. If you can do a good job on the defensive side, then you’re in the game.”

The Bucs’ defense will have its hands full in trying to cover senior wide receiver Tyl Woelber. The senior has 33 receptions for 652 yards and seven TDs for an Arrows offense that totals 3,473 total yards on the season. Senior Garrett Ploeger leads the team’s rushing performance with 857 yards and seven scores on 153 totes.

“We’ve got to shut down their run game and control Woelber,” Kuechenmeister said. “If we can do that, then it’s anybody’s game. It’s going to be a huge challenge.”

Playing on turf also will play a factor in trying to control Woelber.

“It helps with speed, no question about it,” Kuechenmeister said. “Woelber is very quick, so I’d imagine on turf, he’ll be quicker. That’ll present a little more challenge.”

Defensively, the Arrows have held their opponents to an average of 12 points with three shutouts on the year. Junior linebacker Matt Enger has a team-leading 156 tackles with five fumble recoveries, while junior cornerback Braeden Rieck leads the Arrows with 10 interceptions along with 98 tackles.

“Offensively, we’ve got to run right at them and take advantage of the passing game based on what they do against us on the run,” Kuechenmeister said.

The Bucs balance both their rushing and passing game for a total of 3,267 yards. Since his first start in Week 6, junior Hunter Bleess has adjusted to the starting quarterback role well, completing 54-for-98 for 607 yards and six TDs. Bleess also has rushed 88 times for 416 yards and two more scores.

“He wants to learn and he’s bright, so the more experience he gets in different situations, the better he’ll become,” Kuechenmeister said about Bleess. “I think he throws a decent ball and has improved weekly. … He’s shown the ability to adapt to different situations and different defenses.”

Senior wideout Jacob Vaske, a member of the Bucs’ 2015 state-qualifying team, has been on the receiving end of 37 of Bleess’ throws, accounting for a Bucs-best 453 yards and three scores. In addition to his defensive efforts, McGuire contributes to the Bucs’ offense, racking up 373 yards with three scores on 96 carries.

“We’re going to have to score points to win, obviously,” Kuechenmeister said. “Last time we got down in position and never scored. We’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities we get because with a good defense, you’re not always going to have opportunities.”

Neither team is a stranger to the big stage of the state tournament. Pipestone Area has gone to state twice in 2014 and 2015, while Pipestone alone had two state appearances.

The Arrows’ 2015 state-qualifying team lost to Caledonia, 40-0, in the state championship. That same year, the Bucs fell to the two-time defending champion Caledonia, 48-0, in the quarterfinals. This season is the Bucs’ fifth state trip since 2010, with the team marking a perfect championship-winning season in 2012.

Blue Earth Area has been state qualifiers seven times and Blue Earth had one state trip.

“Everybody has a goal to keep playing, and that’s why you play. You want to earn the right to play next week,” Kuechenmeister said. “You maybe put a little more significance on it because if you win, you play one more and you get to play at U.S. Bank Stadium, but you still have to take care of one thing before the next. … You’ve got to make plays to win, so that’s what it’s come down to.”

Caledonia begins its bid for a third straight title against Minneapolis North Community at 7 p.m. tonight in Burnsville, while Paynesville and Barnesville face off in Alexandria in the quarterfinals.

West Central Area takes Moose Lake/Willow River at 7 p.m. tonight in Brainerd for the quarterfinal contest. The winner will play the Blue Earth Area/Pipestone Area winner at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, at U.S. Bank Stadium.