NORTH SIOUX CITY | Dominating second-half defense and continued rushing strength were the ingredients that carried second-seeded Dakota Valley to a 34-11 triumph over sixth-seeded St. Thomas More in a South Dakota Class 11A semifinal game Friday night at Robert L. Peterson Memorial Stadium.

Dakota Valley (11-0) scored touchdowns following two third-quarter takeaways, Jack McCabe’s interception and Blake Rosenkrans’ fumble recovery. Offensively, running backs Nate Rice, Sam Chesterman and Austin Carter rushed for totals of 114, 94 and 89 yards to pace an attack that exploded for 384 yards total offense.

“This is an incredible feeling,” said McCabe. “We put a lot of work in over the summer, the fall. There were a lot of early mornings, late nights, just a lot of tough practices. It’s an incredible feeling.”

Coach Jeff VanDenHul’s Panthers are in the 11A state finals for the first time in school history. They’ll face top-seeded and two-time defending champion Madison (11-0) next Saturday at 1 p.m. in the DakotaDome in Vermillion.

Actually, it’s Dakota Valley’s second trip to the state finals. The Panthers fell 16-15 to Webster in the 2000 Class 11B title game.

“We’re just going to take a couple of days and let it sink in and enjoy the moment,” said VanDenHul. “Sometimes, you don’t slow down to enjoy those moments. This is a big moment for our program.”

There were big moments defensively for Dakota Valley in the second half. St. Thomas More (8-3) engineered a 22-play, 87-yard drive using most of the final 7 ½ minutes of the second quarter following Chesterman’s 16-yard run that had produced a 13-0 lead.

The Cavaliers utilized two different quarterbacks on the series. Sophomore Ryder Kirsch (6-of-10, 66 yards) injured his ankle midway through the drive and senior Kane Cavanaugh took over, but senior running back Jake Larson (18 rushes, 66 yards) also had carries on a drive that benefitted from a Dakota Valley pass interference penalty.

Larson was stopped three yards short of the end zone and St. Thomas More, a semifinal playoff loser for the second straight year, settled for a 20-yard Joe Poppel field goal to pull within 13-3 with 24 seconds left until halftime.

Dakota Valley’s three quarterback sacks included defensive lineman Brennan Moran’s 10-yard sack of Cavanaugh on the Cavaliers’ first possession of the second half. The takeaways from McCabe and Rosenkrans, were part of a defensive effort where St. Thomas More was held to just nine yards on its first four second-half possessions.

“Our coaches put kids in the right spots and our players made plays,” said VanDenHul, who watched Carter score on a 10-yard run five plays after McCabe’s interception for a 20-3 lead 3 ½ minutes into the third quarter while quarterback Zach Poulsen scored two plays into the fourth quarter on a 1-yard run eight plays after Rosenkrans’ fumble recovery at midfield.

“It comes down to that in any game. Coaches can only take them so far. Then on Friday night, it’s up to the players and they responded. It wasn’t just the second half, our defense has been great all year. They have really risen to the occasion numerous times. They could have easily given up a touchdown there, but they dug in and you know what? You have to earn it against our defense.”

Offensively, the Panthers averaged 6.8 yards on 49 carries. Rice complimented the offensive line of left tackle Brian Mierzejewski (6-4, 210), left guard Casey Voichahoske (5-11, 235), center Liam Tureaud (5-10, 240), right guard Sam Wente (6-0, 185) and Moran (6-4, 280) on a night where he had four double-digit runs, including a 41-yard touchdown that increased the Panthers’ lead to 27-3 in the third quarter.

Chesterman, who carried for 121 yards in last Thursday’s 58-0 first-round rout of Pine Ridge, had three double-digit gains, topped by a 31-yarder in the fourth quarter. Carter had a pair of 10-yard bursts, Jake Likness added a 10-yard carry while off the bench, Eric Johnson had a 27-yard rush in the fourth.

“Austin Carter and Sam Chesterman are the best runners in the backfield for us,” said Rice. “We owe it all to our ‘o’ line. They’ve become big. They’ve had beautiful blocks. It’s so easy. They’re a big factor in our run game.”

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