Lakers bring back state football tradition
The Detroit Lakes football team is back in familiar territory.
Led by a stingy defense and a punishing rushing game, the Class 4A No. 3 ranked Lakers won their 12th section championship in another classic title game in the Fargodome last Thursday, en route to their first state playoff berth in 10 years.
It's been a season of hard-nosed play for the undefeated Lakers (10-0), as they prepare for their next challenge, which will be Section 7-4A champion Princeton (7-4) Saturday at St. Cloud State University, starting at 3 p.m.
Now the fun begins.
"The pressure is winning the section championship, after that, the state tournament is all gravy," said DL head coach Flint Motschenbacher, who led the Lakers to the 2001 Class 4A state title and was an assistant coach under Rick Manke's three state banners in the early 1990's. "The pressure is off now. The kids can go out and play hard, have fun and enjoy the experience."
But make no qualms about it, the Lakers will be a formidable foe entering the Class 4A state playoffs.
They have beaten their opponents handily throughout the season, outscoring them by a 310-132 margin.
Not only do the Lakers have a gritty rushing game, in the section championship against a talented Rocori squad, they planted the seed into future opponent defenses' scheming that they can throw the ball, too.
Junior quarterback Michael Herzog threw for two touchdowns of 36 and 34 yards to wideouts Stephen Erb and Kirk McLeod, while going 8-11 for 188 yards and no interceptions.
Herzog's strong rushing ability, though, sets up DL's aerial attack well. He is just 66 yards off of setting the all-time single-single rushing record, with 1,361 yards.
Mark Leslie holds the record with 1,427 yards, set in 1985.
His two most consistent targets have been Erb and McLeod, who have combined for a total of nine receiving touchdowns this season.
"Most defenses have loaded the box to stop the rushing game, so we see a lot of one-on-one coverage," said Erb, who has nine receptions for 188 yards and four TDs.
A microcosm of how defenses have converged on DL's rushing attack came in the first quarter of Thursday's section championship game.
On a second and 10 play from the Rocori 36, Herzog escaped the pocket and rolled right. He read the defensive end was crashing down and sucked the Spartans' cornerback and safety in and out of coverage.
That opened Erb up down the sidelines, in which Herzog dumped it off, as the DL senior went unscathed for the Lakers' second score of the game.
"It works out nicely," Erb said of the read.
In the middle of the second quarter, the Spartans were still stacking the box to limit Herzog and the rushing game, which opened up the middle of the field for McLeod, who was running a seam route.
Herzog hit him in stride on the way for a 34-yard touchdown to put DL up 23-0, as the Lakers built a 29-0 halftime lead.
"We rarely see a safety rolling over for coverage, so it's a lot easier for us to get open," said McLeod, who has a team-high 14 catches for 311 yards and five scores. "It puts a lot of pressure on the defense because we can both pass and run the ball."
Herzog has 823 passing yards on the season, including 12 passing touchdowns, to go along with his team-high 21 rushing scores.
As is the case in the state playoffs, teams are rolling and have a full head of momentum.
Princeton is that team, after outscoring their playoff opponents by a 119-37 margin in three Section 7-4A wins.
The Tigers beat Hibbing in the opening round, while surviving an overtime affair in the semifinals, before beating Cloquet 35-29.
In the section title game, Princeton rolled top seeded Hermantown 42-0, which is the only common opponent with DL.
The Lakers defeated Hermantown in the season opener 22-7.
"Princeton is a team on a roll, they are playing with confidence," Motschenbacher said. "They have a good power running game and can go play action off it. They are pretty big up front, which keys their rushing game."
Princeton's losses are against two Class 4A state-ranked teams at the time in Zimmerman (25-21) and Becker (27-20) and to Little Falls (20-14) and Foley (13-12).
The Lakers, meanwhile, have not felt the sting of defeat, with impressive wins over Class 3A state qualifier Perham and last year's state champion Rocori.
The Rocori win alone should be a good notation that the Lakers are well deserving of their first state berth in a decade.
"Rocori was a very talented team and we feel good about that win," Motschenbacher said. "We are excited about our opportunity to be in state."
Erb respected what Rocori brought to the table, as well.
"Hey, Rocori was state champs last year," Erb included. "This is the real deal."
McLeod knows the feeling of helping put pride back in a Laker program, after the DL boys' basketball team qualified for the state playoffs last year for the first time ever.
"It's nice to bring back the tradition to Laker football," McLeod said.