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Fairmont to face St. Croix Lutheran in AAA state football quarterfinal

LOCKED ON TARGET — Fairmont linebacker Aden Welcome (13) focuses on Blue Earth Area quarterback Ashton Lloyd (8) before making a tackle during the two teams’ regular-season Little Brown Jug game on Oct. 19 at Mahoney Field in Fairmont. Welcome and teammate Parker Mathiason (34) will guide Fairmont into Saturday’s Class AAA state quarterfinal game against St. Croix Lutheran Academy in Burnsville. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — Fairmont vs. St. Croix Lutheran Academy 2.0. Kickoff time: noon on Saturday. Location: Burnsville High School’s football field. Postseason level: Class AAA state quarterfinal.

Legendary mentor Carl Lemke and his ground-and-pound Crusaders edged fifth-year head coach Mat Mahoney and his pass-oriented Cardinals, 34-32, for the Class AAA state football championship on Nov. 26, 2011, inside the Metrodome.

It was Mahoney’s first-ever appearance in the opening round of the Prep Bowl, while the championship clash triggered a string of seven consecutive state bids by Lemke’s gridiron program.

Fast forward to the present. Lemke has been retired since December of 2018 after closing out his 46th season as the No. 7 all-time winningest high school football coach in the state of Minnesota at 304.

Adam Frey, Lemke’s successor, earned the first state bid of his four-year tenure at the Crusaders’ helm and St. Croix Lutheran Academy’s ninth overall.

Frey’s team carries a somewhat deceptive 5-5 overall record into Saturday’s state quarterfinal on the heels of a 44-25 victory over Minneapolis Henry and a narrow 14-6 win over 2021 champion Breck for the Section 4 crown.

“Stop looking at the 5-5 record. Anybody that makes it to this stage of the season earned the spot and is hitting on all cylinders,” said Mahoney, whose team carries a 9-2 record into the mid-November showdown. “Just like 11 years ago, St. Croix is run-oriented. They like to give you both a pro-set and a slot look, but usually will run fullback dive out of it.”

Senior fullback Evan Valleau produced both of the Crusaders’ touchdowns during their sectional finale win over Breck. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior crossed the goal line from 1 yards out with 5:09 remaining in the second quarter. Valleau then found the end zone on a 6-yard carry with 9:56 left in regulation.

Valleau finished the game with 58 yards on 14 totes, Matt Beekman — who kicked both PATs — gained 46 yards on 11 carries, while quarterback Jack Thome led the ground attack with 127 yards on 24 rushes.

“They’re not a true option team because they want to run the fullbacks first, but it’s definitely a smashmouth brand of football,” said Mahoney. “One of their strengths is the fact that their offensive line gets off the ball well and that is one element that hasn’t changed since 2011.”

Since the Cardinals and Crusaders first met, Mahoney has guided his teams to state in 2013, 2017, 2018, 2021 and this season, capturing state runner-up accolades again in 2018.

In fact, Fairmont was eliminated last year by eventual Class AAA state champion Dassel-Cokato in the quarterfinals.

Fairmont, which is making its 12th overall appearance, represents one of four state qualifiers returning to Class AAA’s final round of eight this year.

“Trust me — we’re only focusing on St. Croix Lutheran this week. The winner of our game, however, will advance to play one of the two undefeated teams in the state bracket,” said Mahoney.

Indeed. Esko and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, both of which earned repeat state bids, square off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Brainerd High School’s football field. Esko, who sports an 11-0 record, will make its 14th state appearance, while Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (10-0) qualified for the eighth time in its program’s history.

The Fairmont-St. Croix Lutheran Academy winner and the Esko–Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton winner would square off in the state semifinals at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

In the other half of the Class AAA state football bracket, Watertown-Mayer edged Cannon Falls, 34-30, during their quarterfinal on Thursday night. Watertown-Mayer (11-1) advances to face New London-Spicer (9-2) in a 4:30 p.m. state semifinal on Saturday, Nov. 19, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Cannon Falls, which was making its fourth overall state appearance against 2021 qualifier New London-Spicer, ended its season with a 10-2 record.

New London-Spicer, which garnered its seventh state berth, squeezed by Milaca in their quarterfinal clash on Thursday night, 18-14.

Milaca, which made its second-ever state appearance, ended its season with a 9-2 record.

The Class AAA state football championship game kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

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