By Rand Middleton
MORRIS -- Two flashy teams with quick feet were featured on the Big Cat Stadium turf on a perfect November night for football.
Despite a five-hour bus ride from the far north, the Warroad Warriors looked fresh as the full moon overhead as they overran the Paynesville Bulldogs 34-12 on the Minnesota, Morris campus in the Class AA state tournament quarterfinals Friday.
The Section 8AA champions unleashed running back Aaron Haataja and quarterback Ross Merriman to counter the jitterbug runs of Paynesville's Josh Bungum, who rushed for about 200 yards.
The Warriors piled up 330 yards on the ground in 50 rushes. Haataja's darting runs amassed 237 yards and 4 TDs while averaging 8.7 yards per carry. Merriman also proved slippery keeping the ball for 53 yards even though he lost 15 yards on two sacks.
All three backs are modest in stature, ranging just either side of 160 pounds, but each left sprawling tacklers grasping for air.
Haataja ran for scores covering 10, 2, 16 and 22 yards. Haataja, a junior, played for Dassel-Cokato last fall and then the Litchfield/DC hockey team. The family moved north when Steve Haataja, the father, was named head hockey coach at Warroad.
Both these schools are better known for successes in other sports: Warroad, of course, in hockey and Paynesville in baseball and wrestling. Paynesville's last state appearance in football was 32 years ago and Warroad last made State in 1992.
The Warriors outgained the Dogs 406 to 302 and held them 26 points below their season average. Twice Paynesville reached the Red Zone only to lose the ball on downs at the 13 and the 3.
Warriors' first-year head coach Gabe Richards said the defense couldn't focus only on Bungum because running backs Nathan Meyer and Jason Kampsen are also dangerous.
"We knew we had to be physical making that first hit and then have two or three guys right there to finish up," said Richards. He added that the team has played exceptionally well in the playoffs in holding Barnsville to 20 points and previously unbeaten Hawley to just a touchdown.
Bungum scored on runs of 9 yards in the second quarter and 58 yards in the third, the latter down the stadium sideline pivoting around Merriman who had the angle at the 10.
The Paynesville defense, led by linebacker Josh Anderson, contained the Warriors for one half and trailed just 14-6 at the halftime break.
They had a chance to tie it up early in the third. An interception by Caleb Burris set Paynesville up at the Warriors' 48-yard line. Bungum broke a 41-yard spin to the Warriors' three. But after two runs and two incomplete passes the ball was still at the three.
The Warriors' marched north 97 yards capped by a Merriman burrowing in from the one for a 21-8 lead with 1:15 left in the third quarter.
Paynesville finishes 8-4 while treating their fans to perhaps the program's most exciting football season in at least 30 years.
Warroad 34, Paynesville 12
Paynesville (8-4) 0 6 0 6 -- 12
Warroad (10-2) 0 14 7 13 -- 34
W - Aaron Haataja 10 run (Ricardo Rodriquez kick)
P - Josh Bungum 9 run (pass fail)
W - Haataja 2 run (Rodriquez kick)
W - Merriman 1 run (Rodriquez kick)
P - Haataja 16 run (Rodriquez kick)
W - Bungum 58 run (pass fail)
P - Haataja 22 run (kick fail)
Passing (com-att-yds-int.): 4-20-40-2 ... Fumbles lost: 1
Passing: Josh Bungum 4-20-40-2 ... Interceptions: Caleb Burris ... QB sacks: Josh Anderson, Evan Bayer
First downs: not available ... Rushing: 50-330 ... Passing (com-att-yds-int.): 6-8-76-1 ... Fumbles lost: 0 ... Penalties: not available
Rushing: Aaron Haataja 27-237, Ross Merriman 14-53, Brady Fahlstrom 1-0, Terry Magnuson 6-30, Tyler Joseph Fish 2-10 ... Passing: Merriman 6-8-76-1 ... Receiving: Alex Sandahl 2-25, Alan Peterson 2-23, Tyler Hanson 2-28 ... Punting: not available ... Interceptions: Merriman, Tyler Hanson ... Fumble recoveries: Andy Foster