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Prep Football: High-powered Wildcats on prowl to pick up 2nd title in five years

New London-Spicer senior quarterback Ryan Vraa (18) waits for the snap from junior center Noah Welsh during a Class AAA semifinal game against Rochester Lourdes Nov. 16 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Tribune photo by Tom Larson

MINNEAPOLIS — Football teams still playing in late November typically are trying to acclimate to the cold weather.

Not the New London-Spicer Wildcats, who have spent all but a half hour indoors the past two weeks trying to ready themselves for the Metrodome in the Class AAA championship game.

“We went outside (Friday) for special teams but other than that we’ve been in the gym,” said NLS quarterback Ryan Vraa, who leads the Wildcats against St. Croix Lutheran at 1 p.m. Saturday. “We’ve been running the halls in school to get used to the heat of the dome. It was a little tough at first but we’ll be ready.”

NLS is back in the championship game for the first time since the Wildcats staged a wild fourth-quarter rally to defeat Glencoe-Silver Lake 28-21 for the 2009 Class AAA title.

Getting title No. 2 will be difficult, facing a St. Croix Lutheran team that won the 2011 Class AAA Prep Bowl championship and is in the state tournament for the fourth time since 2006.

The Crusaders (11-2) keep grounded, averaging about 315 yards per game. But they can put the ball in the air on play-action and they’ve had success, throwing for more than 1,000 yards and averaging 26 yards per completion.

“They prefer to run with their triple option,” Wildcats head coach Dan Essler said. “They have their fullback on the dive, the second option is the quarterback keeping it and the third option is pitching it. We want to try to make them pitch it, but they throw it effectively. They suck everybody up with the run and then they have a guy wide open.”

NLS has plenty of practice against the run two weeks ago in a 36-16 win over Rochester Lourdes in the semifinals. The Wildcats held Lourdes’ run-first attack almost 100 yards below its per-game average.

“(St. Croix Lutheran) runs the ball a lot but we saw a lot of that (against Lourdes),” Vraa said. “Defensively, it was a good test to see what we could do against a running game. Offensively, we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

The Wildcats have been rolling up yards and points, averaging almost 50 points per game in four postseason games. NLS gained 454 yards against Lourdes, with 317 yards and four TDs coming on the ground.

St. Croix Lutheran is pretty good at containing offenses but not great, although the Crusaders can point to their 3-0 semifinals win over Proctor as proof that they can get the job done. They allowed Proctor just 86 total yards and only three first downs.

“We came out kind of nervous our last game but once the game got flowing we were fine,” Vraa said. “It’s been a mixture of knowing what we’re doing on all the plays and the starters playing all game against these better teams. A lot of times we were way ahead at halftime and the starters didn’t play much in the second half. Now, we’re getting to see what the offense can do playing all four quarters.”

Balance will again be a key for NLS, Essler said.

“We have to establish the run, but at the same time, we have to be effective passing to get (a Crusader defender) out of the box,” he said.

The Wildcats spent two weeks trying to beat the heat. If their offense keeps its current pace, the Crusaders will be feeling it, too.

Welcome Home

A Welcome Home celebration — win or lose — for the NLS players will be held at the high school Saturday around 6 p.m.

The public is invited to welcome home the Wildcats as they return to New London after Saturday’s game.

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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