FAIRMONT - The similarities between familiar prep football foes Class AAA, No. 9-ranked Fairmont and No. 7-ranked Belle Plaine are a bit eerie.
"We're definitely not strangers even though we play in the Minnesota River Conference and Fairmont plays in the South Central," said Belle Plaine head coach Justin Johnston. "We were matched up against each other during the summer 7-on-7 league in Mankato, and then we met at the South Dakota State camp in late July.
"Now, we're playing for the section championship."
Johnston's No. 1-seeded Tigers (8-1) will play host to Mat Mahoney's No. 2-seeded Cardinals (7-2) at 7 p.m. tonight at Tiger Stadium in Belle Plaine for the Section 3 championship and a state quarterfinal bid.
"They're definitely not new opponents, especially considering this is the fourth time in my seven years as head coach here that we've met in sections," said Mahoney. "Belle Plaine beat us each of my first two years in the (Section 2AAA) playoffs, including the sectional championship in 2008, before we finally beat them in the section (3AAA) quarterfinals last year."
Running back Brandon Martin steamrolled his way to a single-game school-record five touchdowns and 139 yards on 19 carries, while quarterback Luke Hested connected on 13 of 18 passes for 232 yards and one more score to power the Cardinals to a 48-26 postseason triumph over the Tigers at Mahoney Field last fall.
"That's the difference a year can make," said Mahoney.
While Martin and Hested were closing out their prep careers on the gridiron a year ago, Belle Plaine quarterback Luke Narveson was just beginning to put his passing skills on display. The rookie signal-caller completed 13 of 29 passes for 247 yards and a pair of TDs in the Tigers' sectional loss in 2012.
Ironically, Fairmont inserted Spencer Chirpich under center to close out last year's playoff game and he completed all three of his passes for 30 yards.
Tonight, Chirpich - a 6-foot-1 junior - and Narveson - a 6-4 sophomore - enter the sectional showdown with 1,800-plus passing yards each and will test the airwaves early and often.
"Chirpich has thrown 30 touchdown passes this season, so we know Fairmont's definitely not afraid to throw the ball a lot," said Johnston. "Obviously, the key for us defensively will be to limit their big plays, and keep their passing game under wraps, so we have our work cut out for us."
Strong safety Zach Bahr, who returned a Blue Earth Area fumble for a touchdown and recorded 10 tackles during Saturday's 33-7 sectional semifinal win, and inside linebacker Ben Stier - who made seven stops and an interception against the Bucs - will spearhead Belle Plaine's 3-4 defensive scheme against Fairmont's high-octane aerial attack.
Bahr, free safety Derek Dahlke, along with cornerbacks Chase Emmers and Cameron Lark, will have their hands full in trying to put the clamps on Fairmont's talented receiving trio of split ends Josh Eversman and Luke Becker, and tight end Jay Ruen tonight.
The record-setting Eversman has garnered 42 of Chirpich's spirals for a team-leading 886 yards and a school-record 14 TDs, Becker has grabbed a team-best 52 catches for 610 yards and eight more scores, while Ruen has hauled in 16 passes for 211 yards and six TDs.
Ironically, across the field, the secondary of Eversman, Becker, Ruen and cornerback Parker Monsen will look to counter Narveson's top two targets in wide receivers Dahlke and Emmers. Dahlke has grabbed a team-leading 52 passes for 756 yards and three TDs, while Emmers has pocketed 23 catches for 518 yards and a team-best six scores this fall.
"Their quarterback (Narveson) does a good job of throwing the ball when he's forced out of the pocket, and he's a good runner, too," said Mahoney. "Numbers 4 (Dahlke) and 7 (Emmers) are their playmakers, so we'll have to be aware of where they're at throughout the game and not let them hit a big one (catch) against us."
While prep football fans throughout southern Minnesota will expect to watch an aerial display tonight, both the Cardinals and Tigers also have solid and vastly-improved running games since their season-openers 10 weeks ago.
Fairmont senior running back Derek Edman and freshman fullback Chris Fausch have combined to reach the 125- to 150-yard rushing plateau per game coming down the stretch, while Belle Plaine senior running back Chris Holmbeck hit the 130-yard mark on 20 totes and offensive tackle-converted-fullback Gavin Dauwalter tallied two short-yardage TDs on the ground in Saturday's semifinal.
"He was our starting tight end as a sophomore and junior, but we weren't really throwing to our tight end that much and we needed more blocking, so I asked him to move to offensive tackle," Johnston said in reference to the 6-5, 250-pound Dauwalter. "I told him that I would give him the chance to score by using him out of the backfield in our goal-line package and he's scored 14 or 15 touchdowns for us this season."
So, how will each respective head coach get their players geared up for tonight's Section 3AAA showdown?
While Mahoney can point to the 2013 seasonal preview story that's displayed on the bulletin board in his office that has the headline, 'FHS aims at return to prominence,' Johnston's motivating preseason mantra centers around reaching the state playoffs as a 'destination, not a goal.'
"We have to work hard every play, and everybody has a job to do," said Johnston.
"Execute every snap to the best of our abilities, and limit mistakes," said Mahoney.