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Cardinals, Rebels to vie for spot in state football finale

GOING, GOING ... — Fairmont wide receiver David Maakestad (right) sprints away from St. Croix Lutheran Academy defensive back Owen Harley (14) for one of his two touchdowns during the Cardinals’ 49-7 rout in Saturday’s Class AAA state football quarterfinal in Burnsville. Fairmont offensive tackle Sawyer Tordsen trails the play. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — The roads to Saturday’s 2 p.m. Class AAA football state semifinal for the Fairmont Cardinals and the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Rebels have been quite a contrast.

Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (11-0) has generated six of its overall wins by seven or less points, including three down-to-the-wire single-digit victories during the postseason.

The Rebels edged Thief River Falls 14-10 in the Section 8 semifinals, squeezed by East Grand Forks for the sectional championship 7-6 and had the final word in a 21-17 back-and-forth state quarterfinal triumph over previously-undefeated Esko.

DGF quarterback Owen Leach, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound senior, tossed the go-ahead 85-yard touchdown pass to Nicholas Waale with 7:24 remaining in regulation last Saturday before Leach pocketed the game-clinching interception from his safety spot with 1:01 to go in Brainerd.

Nearly 150 miles southeast of Brainerd, Fairmont senior quarterback Brendan Schmidtke etched his name in the school’s record books by completing 11 of 12 passes for career-bests of 302 yards and five TDs to breeze the Cardinals to a 49-7 state quarterfinal rout over St. Croix Lutheran Academy last Saturday in Burnsville.

Senior flanker Landen Meyerdirk produced a career-best 172 receiving yards, including TD catches of 67 and 77 yards, respectively, while senior wide receiver David Maakestad converted two of his three receptions into scores of 15 and 25 yards en route to 80 total in the Cardinals’ opening state rout.

Ironically, the 42-point thumping continued Fairmont’s high-octane trend throughout its four playoff games. The Cardinals (10-2) have won by a 32.3-point margin, including respective runaway Section 2 quarterfinal and semifinal wins over Belle Plaine (49-6) and Luverne (35-0), and a 35-26 decision over Waseca in the championship clash.

Fairmont has amassed its 10 wins by a 26.9-point margin, while DGF has captured its 11 victories by almost half the differential at 13.7 points per outing. The Cardinals’ opponents had compiled a collective record of 41-48 (.461), while DGF’s foes have netted a mark of 44-46 (.489) this season.

“I researched those same numbers and in all reality, they probably don’t mean much when you’re two of the final four teams left in your class,” said Fairmont mentor Mat Mahoney. “We don’t have any common opponents, so it’s difficult to tell exactly how we’ll match up against each other.

“By this point in the season it really is simple — one, continue to do what got us this far; and two, take care of the football.”

The Cardinals are one of the entire state’s best in the plus-minus turnover ratio category this fall. Fairmont has recovered 13 opponents’ fumbles, including scoring a pair of TDs, while intercepting 16 rivals’ passes — highlighted by returning a half-dozen of them for scores en route to a state record for a single season.

“Plus-18 in turnovers,” said Mahoney, whose team has thrown eight picks and lost just three fumbles in a dozen games. “I can’t remember a team that I’ve coached before that’s produced a plus-minus like that.

“Incredible.”

Levi Pooley, who tops the Cardinals with 46 catches for 746 yards and 12 TDs, also holds a 6-5 edge over Meyerdirk for the team lead in interceptions. Meyerdirk has one pick-6 on the season, while Pooley and Maakestad each lead the Cardinals with two pick-6s. Parker Mathiason has the sixth interception-turned-TD.

Maakestad enters Saturday’s state semifinal with 32 receptions for 517 yards and eight TDs, while Meyerdirk has eight catches for 271 yards and three scores.

Elijah Johnson powers Fairmont’s ground game with 102 carries for 610 yards and four TDs, Meyerdirk has tallied 412 yards and five scores on 42 rushes, while James Johnson adds 309 yards and five TDs on 53 totes.

Schmidtke has connected on 108 of 177 tosses for 1,747 yards and 26 TDs to help pace a Cardinal offense that has created balanced numbers through the air (155.0 yards per game) and on the ground (140.5 ypg).

“One of our strengths is overall team speed, and our guys will have a clean flat surface to run on Saturday,” Mahoney said in reference to the artificial turf at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. “Playing inside at the dome is a huge plus because it’s always 70 degrees and sunny with no wind to contend with, so we should be able to play a fast tempo.

“On tape, Dilworth (Glyndon-Felton) looks like they are more deliberate than we are and want to run the ball and burn time off the scoreboard.”

The Rebels have relied on the multi-tasking trio of Leach at quarterback and the running back tandem of Jordan Summers and Waale to pace their 28.7-point scoring clip this season.

The 5-9, 182-pound Summers tops the Rebels with 1,884 rushing yards and 19 TDs, while the 5-9, 175-pound Waale has contributed 368 yards and two scores out of the backfield.

Leach, who has made a verbal commitment to play basketball for the University of Minnesota Duluth next season, has thrown for 462 yards and eight TDs to go with 195 yards and four more scores on the ground. Leach averaged 29.2 points and 11.2 rebounds per contest on the hardwood court last winter.

“No. 1 (Summers) is a hard-nosed runner and will be a challenge to stop,” said Mahoney. “DGF wants to run first, but what makes them different is they have play-action to complement the run game.

“On both sides of the line of scrimmage, they also have one of the better players we’ll face this season in defensive tackle and left guard Victor Sosa. He, along with Maak (David Maakestad), have been selected to play in annual all-star game, so you know he’s a solid player.”

From a coaching perspective, ironically, Mahoney and DGF head coach Anthony Soderberg nearly are spot-on matches on paper.

Mahoney enters the state semifinal with a record of 116-50 and six state appearances during his 16-year tenure, while Soderberg has compiled a 110-44 mark and six state bids during his 15-year coaching span.

Now the question will be which coach and his skilled squad will advance to face the winner between Watertown-Mayer (11-1) and New London-Spicer (9-2) for the Class AAA state football championship at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3, back at U.S. Bank Stadium.

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