NORTH SIOUX CITY – Dakota Valley’s stingy defense will be faced with a new task during Friday’s state semifinals.
The Panthers, who have allowed just 29 points in their last four games combined, face a St. Thomas More team that unlike previous opponents, prefers the pass over the run as its top offensive weapon.
Second-ranked Dakota Valley (10-0), a run-oriented offensive club, will square off with fourth-ranked St. Thomas More (8-2) team that has won seven straight in a Class 11A semifinal contest at Robert L. Peterson Memorial Stadium.
“They like to throw the ball,” said Dakota Valley coach Jeff VanDenHul. “They made a change mid-season to a different quarterback, moved some athletes around. They like to throw the ball and they do a really nice job of moving the ball that way.”
Ryder Kirsch, a sophomore, took over as the Cavaliers starting signal-caller after back-to-back losses to Tea Area and West Central left them with a 1-2 record and has thrown for over 1,800 yards and 27 touchdowns in seven games.
“You don’t see teams throw as well as they do,” added VanDenHul. “Week in and week out it isn’t something you normally see.”
The Panthers defense, which allows 203 total yards from scrimmage a game, prides itself on being able to get off the field on third down and creating turnovers.
Dakota Valley forced five turnovers and limited Pine Ridge to under 100 total yards in the first-round. Austin Carter, the team leader in tackles, returned an interception for a touchdown in the win.
“We’ve been able to take teams run games away all year, that and we create a lot of turnovers,” said VanDenHul. “You get those two things going in a high school football game and you’re going to be successful.”
Directing the run-oriented attack for Dakota Valley is quarterback Zach Poulson, a six-foot senior, who complements the running of Carter, Sam Chesterman and Nathan Rice with a passing attack that has him completing 40 percent of his passes, while 13 of his 21 completions have gone for touchdowns.
“Zach has done everything that we have asked of him,” said VanDenHul. “He came in and worked hard and been a great leader for us. He really changed the quarterback position for us this year. He is willing to do whatever we have asked.”
Rice leads the ground attack with 713 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 13.2 yards per carry. Carter has rushed for 634 yards and nine touchdowns and Chesterman 612 yards and six touchdowns.
“Nothing changes, especially this time of year,” said VanDenHul of his offense. “It’s going to be a cooler night, that makes it more conducive to running the ball than throwing the ball.”
Dakota Valley, making its first playoff appearance since 2012 and just the ninth in school history, seeks its second trip to the state championship in school history. The Panthers went to the DakotaDome in 2000, where it fell on a late field goal to Webster.
“I’m excited for it, for our boys, for all the hard work and time that they put into it that they are getting this great opportunity,” said VanDenHul. “It’s special when these things happen and you need to take advantage of it when you have the opportunity.”