NORTH SIOUX CITY | As it turned out, the pollsters had it right.
Top-ranked and two-time defending state champion Madison will play No. 2 Dakota Valley for the South Dakota Class 11A state football championship Saturday.
It’s a marquee matchup pitting a Madison team quite familiar with the DakotaDome against a Dakota Valley squad dead set on capturing the school’s first state title.
Madison (11-0) is in the state championship game for the fifth consecutive season, seeking its third straight 11A crown. The Bulldogs – who have won 34 of their last 35 games -- rely on a balanced and explosive offense triggered by a talented senior quarterback.
Dakota Valley, also unbeaten in 11 contests, can also put up points but boasts a stingy defense that has allowed only 12.7 points per game this season.
The Panthers have seemed to pick up steam as the season has progressed. They opened the season with a 20-0 win over a Dell Rapids team that has typically given them fits and haven’t been tested since a 21-14 win over Milbank on Sept. 22.
“I don’t think anybody starts the season out with those kind of aspirations,” said Dakota Valley Coach Jeff VanDenHul when asked if he had a sense in the preseason that his team was good enough to reach the state finals. “Until things get rolling into your season you never know and sometimes it’s not about how good you are but about how good other teams are. We’ve just been able to get on a roll since the beginning of the season and a lot of good things have happened.
“Dell Rapids has always been a tough opponent and we were able to beat them the first week of the season. Then you kind of thought maybe there is something here that could be special. Until you get into week eight or nine you’re really not sure but after that first game you had some pretty good feelings.”
The Panthers will have to deal with not only Josh Giles, who has passed for 2,203 yards and 34 touchdowns, but also twin brothers Jadon and Jaxon Janke. Jadon Janke (6-3, 190) has rushed for 1,250 yards and 18 touchdowns while Jaxon Janke (6-3, 195) has 50 receptions for 1,115 yards and a whopping 22 touchdowns.
Josh Giles, who has also rushed for a career-high 224 yards, has racked up almost 4,900 passing yards and 73 touchdowns for his career.
History doesn’t bode well for Dakota Valley. In its last four games against Madison, it has suffered losses of 35-13, 49-14, 48-6 and 34-12.
“We’ve been preaching all year about one game and one step at a time, trying to keep it small, and they’ve done a good job of listening and staying hungry,” VanDenHul said. “Every day they come out and put together a great practice and get ready for the next one. It’s a testament to the group of boys I have.”
While Madison’s offense is multi-faceted, Dakota Valley does most of its damage on the ground. The Panthers have rushed for 2,880 yards while passing for a modest 739.
Junior Nate Rice leads the way with 827 yards and 10 TDs, while senior Austin Carter has 720 yards and 10 touchdowns and junior Sam Chesterman 705 yards and seven scores.
“I give my coaching staff a ton of credit for offensively and defensively putting together things that utilize the strength of our kids,” VanDenHul said. “They do a tremendous job of putting them in a position to succeed.”
Dakota Valley’s defensive blueprint has been stopping the run (1,081 yards) and creating turnovers (19 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries).
“They have a lot of good athletes and we’re going to have to make sure we’re getting them to the ground as soon as they get the ball in their hands,” VanDenHul said. “If we can come out and create a turnover and play like we can, anything can happen.”
Madison’s passing attack can hurt you in a number of ways.
“They have some 6-3, 195-pound kids who run like the wind,” VanDenHul said. “I don’t necessarily know that they are going to throw long a lot, they like to throw short and break tackles and make moves to get into the open field.”
Dakota Valley is playing in a state title game for the first time since 2000, when it suffered a heartbreaking 16-15 loss to Webster on a late field goal.
“We just need to come out and control the line of scrimmage,” VanDenHul. “The more we hang onto the ball and put some points on the board, the less chances they have of scoring. We have to be able to stop their run game and get a few turnovers and, like I said, anything can happen.”