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KMS senior fullback Mitch Hagen has run for 533 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Tribune photo by T.J. Bartelt

KMS hoping experience will be factor against Springfield

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KMS hoping experience will be factor against Springfield
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg has been here before.

'Here' is the Metrodome, where the Fighting Saints will, for the second straight year, play in the state Class A football semifinals.

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Today's game against Springfield begins at approximately 10:15 a.m. at the Metrodome.

"It's a big deal," said KMS coach James Cortez of the state tournament experience. "You can look back on some things you did. Just the planning of going down there and worrying about where you're going to stay and where you're going to practice. Most of the starters played a pretty big role on last year's team. This group has expected to be here. We're not just happy to be here. It's a place they've expected to be all year long."

The Tigers weren't picked by anyone to make much noise at the beginning of the season, and they didn't do much to prove anyone wrong early, posting a 1-3 record, including a 38-14 loss to Section 3A powerhouse Wabasso Sept. 19.

But since then, Springfield is on an eight-game winning streak, including a 20-8 win over New Ulm Cathedral in the state quarterfinals. The Tigers lost to Cathedral 26-0 Sept. 6.

"We began with a pretty inexperienced team and a tough schedule," said Springfield coach Paul Dunn. "The kids have worked very hard to buy into the team concept and are playing both fast and physical now. Our execution has dramatically improved and our defense was amazing last week. The kids now understand what we are trying to do on the field and are playing fast."

The Tigers have three backs that handle most of the rushing duties. Colby Salonek, a 6-foot-2, 203-pound sophomore fullback, leads the team with 1,035 yards and has scored 10 touchdowns. Quarterback Jordan Milbrath, a 6-5, 175-pound junior, adds 813 yards rushing and has thrown for 1,050 yards on 136 completions. Tyler Stark, a 6-0, 191-pound fullback, has rushed for 445 yards.

Springfield runs a veer offense, which should be familiar to the Fighting Saints.

"We've seen veer teams with Browerville and USA, and then Fosston (in the state quarterfinals)," Cortez said. "It gets tough defensively if you don't get it done on every play. The key to those offenses is to get some early stops and put them in third-and-long or fourth-and-long and make them do things they don't want to do."

But it's the Tigers' defense that's gotten the team this far. They held the Greyhounds to eight points last Friday and stopped Cathedral from finding the end zone several times in the fourth quarter. Once Cathedral had to abandon the ground game, the Tigers picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown.

"Our secondary is small, but the 'piranhas' have 12 interceptions in the last three games," Dunn noted. "We have to win the turnover battle."

Cortez said his coaching staff was able to scout Springfield's game with Cathedral last weekend.

"They don't look like they give up much against the run," he said. "Their defense basically won the game for them against New Ulm. Their secondary takes good angles to the ball and have made some big plays."

But Springfield will have its hands full. First, there's 2,500-yard rusher Joel Bauman, who continues to run over teams in the postseason. He rushed for over 300 yards in the state quarterfinal win over Fosston and had more than 250 yards in the Section 5A win over Minneota.

"We will try to make him bounce outside, and we have to tackle well in space," Dunn said. "He is a nice athlete and we need team tackling throughout."

Then there's the byproduct of Bauman's success. With the play-action passing game, the Fighting Saints can rip a defense apart by drawing more defenders into the box and letting receivers like Taylor Freetly and Aaron Zimmer run free routes over the middle or down the sideline.

But it all starts with the KMS offensive line, which has been revamped since the season started. Joey Bauman centers the line, with Brad Kniesl and Adam Wentzel at the guards. Chris DiSanto and Mitch Weflen are the tackles.

"We put this group together about Week 7 and since then they've gelled together," Cortez said. "They're all seniors and they're pretty smart and pretty strong. They've been doing a good job recognizing defenses."

The winner of today's game will face Royalton at 1 p.m. Nov. 28 at the Metrodome for the Class A title.

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