No. 5-ranked Fairmont, No. 2 JCC to clash for section football crown again

Blake Buntjer

FAIRMONT — Will No. 5-ranked Fairmont complete a rare Section 3 football three-peat or will No. 2-ranked Jackson County Central return to the Class AAA state quarterfinals for the first time in three years?

Whichever scenario unfolds when the No. 1-seeded Cardinals (8-1) and No. 2-seeded Huskies (9-0) square off for the fifth consecutive season in the sectional championship, it will take place at a different site than in the previous four showdowns.

The hard-hitting postseason rivalry will kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday on the turf gridiron in Janesville after being held on the artificial playing surface in New Ulm 2016-18 and on the natural grass at Jackson in 2015.

Fairmont bested JCC by a 35-18 decision last fall and a narrow 29-21 decision in 2017 on the heels of a Huskies’ down-to-the-wire 21-14 victory in 2016. JCC flattened Fairmont 35-12 in 2015.

“There was no ‘curse’ on us playing in New Ulm the last couple of years,” a chuckling Huskies head coach Tom Schuller said in reference to the title game’s change of venue. “The only curse was we didn’t play well from the opening series last year and it turned into our worst performance of the last four years.”

Indeed. Jordan Wolter broke free for a 72-yard scoring sprint, quarterback Garrett Myren fired a 9-yard TD pass to split end Dustin Schultz and Myren plowed into the end zone from 6 yards out to built a 21-0 first-quarter lead, and the Cardinals never looked back.

“But seriously, each sectional game between the two of us has been different than the previous ones due to different personnel each time out,” added Schuller.

Until this season, that is.

While Wolter, Myren and Schultz all graduated from last year’s Class AAA state runner-up Fairmont team, two key offensive starters return for JCC to the sectional showdown.

Rudy Voss, a 6-foot-3, 186-pound senior, returns under center for the Huskies after rushing for 78 yards and a touchdown to complement throwing for 89 more yards during the sectional finale a year ago.

Bradley Buhl Jr., a 6-foot, 215-pound senior fullback, rejoins Voss in JCC’s backfield after gaining 91 yards and one TD in the 2018 Section 3 championship game.

“Defensively, we’ll face an explosive offense led by a three-year standout quarterback in Voss, who can beat you with both his arm and legs,” Fairmont head coach Mat Mahoney said about the quarterback’s passing and scrambling skills. “They run option, inside veers, outside veers, iso and empty all because of Voss’ athleticism and ability to read the defense.

“Their fullback (Buhl) is a powerful runner and is tough to bring down, so at the end of the day, we’ll still have to wrap up when tackling either one of those two.”

But Voss and Buhl are not alone as lethal weapons as junior tailback Elijah Meium-Bratrud is coming off a 110-yard, one-TD rushing performance in JCC’s 35-0 sectional semifinal victory over Luverne last Saturday.

“He (Meium-Bratrud) is a talented runner, and we’ll have to keep an eye on him, too,” said Mahoney.

Unlike the Huskies, the Cardinals filled their vast statistical voids created by graduation by relying on a prolific sophomore and two seniors who have developed into two-way standouts this fall.

Sophomore quarterback Zach Jorgensen tops Fairmont in both rushing — 512 yards to go with nine TDs — and passing — 1,160 yards and 16 more scores, while senior flanker Caden Baarts paces the ground game with 10 TDs and a second-best team total of 497 yards on just 42 carries for a staggering 11.8-yard average.

Baarts also has caught 15 passes for 296 yards and five TDs, while senior split ends Cale Steuber and Blake Buntjer rank No. 1 and 2, respectively, on the Cardinals’ charts with 33 receptions for 383 yards and five TDs, and 20 grabs for 367 yards and four more scores.

“Fairmont’s offense creates problems for most defenses because they motion to quads and motion empty, and they always seem to have a plethora of tall receivers, plus a quarterback who can get them the ball,” said Schuller. “Our best cover corner, Noah Carr, is supposed to be back for the game. He’s missed time since halftime of the Blue Earth (Area) game with an injury, so hopefully he’s 100 percent healthy now.

“He’s 6-2 and that helps against Fairmont’s receivers, especially since we usually lead the nation in 5-foot-10 defensive backs.”

Despite generating 270 yards of total offense and winning by 19 against Sibley East in their section semifinal, Mahoney and his coaching staff were fine-tuning the Cardinals’ high-octane offense that averages 34.6 points per outing.

“Offensively, we’ll definitely have to do a better job of maximizing our possessions than we did in our sectional semifinal (40-21) win over Sibley East,” said Mahoney. “What I mean by that is being able to flip the field when we have to punt, and scoring points when we do get inside the red zone. We definitely can’t leave points on the table against a quality team like JCC.”

So, what will be the keys for Mahoney and Schuller?

“We were able to limit our penalties and turnovers against Luverne last Saturday, and stuck to our assignments throughout the game,” said Schuller. “If you can control those three aspects, that’s the perfect recipe for success in the playoffs.

“But another key factor will be field position, and knowing how to play kicks off the turf. The wind and the bounce off the artificial surface will definitely factor into the equation. We’d like to put two guys back to receive, but then you have to worry about Fairmont’s 150 fake punt plays,” Schuller said jokingly.

“Penalties can cost you, so we have to reduce those, in addition to sticking to our assignments,” said Mahoney. “So far, we’re a plus-14 in turnovers on the season, but we’ll have to keep doing that in order to advance in the playoffs.”

The Old Oaken Bucket, a prize originally created for the regular-season rivalry between the two programs, also will be on the line, in addition to a Class AAA state quarterfinal bid.

“It’s a great feeling playing in the sectional championship game for a fifth year in a row, and the Oaken Bucket gives us a little extra something to play for,” said Mahoney. “This has turned into a great rivalry between the two schools in football.”

“This game is what high school football is all about,” said Schuller. “If you can’t enjoy being involved in a consecutive series of highly-competitive playoff games like this, you shouldn’t be coaching,” said Schuller.

The Section 3 champion advances to play the Section 1 winner between No. 10-ranked Waseca and No. 4-rated Stewartville at noon, Saturday, Nov. 9, at Lakeville South.