It takes a lot for a team with a winning tradition to swallow a little pride after taking a serious beating from a nearby rival, regroup just one game into the season and battle back to earn a spot in a state tournament.
But that's what the ACGC football team did, winning eight of nine games and a section championship after suffering a 34-0 beatdown against fellow state tournament team BOLD back on Aug. 31.
"I think we've always thought we could get here," said Falcons quarterback and defensive back Dylan Hoerchler, who will lead the team against St. Clair on Friday night in the Class A state quarterfinals at Southwest Minnesota State after winning the Section 4A title with a hard-fought 6-0 win over BBE last Saturday.
"We always wanted to be where we are," he said, "but in that (BOLD) game we came out slow and we weren't ready to play."
The typically ground-based Falcons came into the season with the type of athletes they were confident would allow the team to throw the ball around a little more. But against BOLD, ACGC threw five interceptions and completed just 5 of 15 passes. The Falcons quickly decided they weren't going to totally abandon the pass but that they would deploy it more prudently while returning to their roots: pound it, defend it.
"When we looked at the season, we knew BOLD would be a tough game," said Falcons head coach Terry Karlsgodt. "We thought we could be more of a passing team but at that point, early in the year, we said, 'This isn't who we are.' We had to get back pounding the ball, running and being more physical."
Karlsgodt said he was disappointed not so much with the anemic passing totals but with his team's lack of aggression.
"We lacked a physical presence on the defensive side of the ball," he said. "I think an offensive style can dictate your defensive style, and I didn't like where we were."
That change was palpable. The next week ACGC tore up Lac qui Parle Valley 40-13 and then came wins over Minnewaska and Paynesville. The Falcons were 3-1, and in a twist, the new/old-look Falcons knew they really were back when they lost 27-20 on the road to Morris/Chokio-Alberta, which finished this season 9-1, went undefeated in the regular season and tied BOLD for the West Central Conference title.
"When we stuck with Morris, that really got us going," Hoerchler said. "Early in the season, we were trying to find our identity, we were passing more. We had to get back to our running game and get back to those head-knockers."
After the narrow loss to Morris/CA, the Falcons blitzed Benson, Yellow Medicine and Sauk Centre by a combined score of 132-13. They then beat KMS by 40 points in the first round of the section playoffs.
"That middle of the season (Paynesville, Morris/CA, Benson), they were conference contenders and we knew we had to come through with a couple of wins," Karlsgodt said. "We played good defense and we got our offense going. That was big."
ACGC's progress was evident in last Saturday's win over BBE. The Falcons doubled-up the Jaguars in almost every category, including time of possession and total yards. But they couldn't punch one in until that passing game they supposedly had scrapped came through big. Hoerchler lobbed a shot up to back Taylor Larson -- a supremely gifted athlete who has 14 interceptions this year -- on a fourth-and-22 play from the BBE 29. Larson made a leaping catch at the one yard line, Jordan Nelson scored two plays later, the Falcons' resurgence found another gear and they found themselves in the state tournament.
"You don't really know how your season is going to go," Karlsgodt said, "but the kids had to pick things up and they had to grow. We had to stay healthy and have some guys step up and they've done that."