FAIRMONT - After down-to-the-wire, back-to-back postseason football clashes in 2007 and 2008, Fairmont mentor Mat Mahoney's Cardinals and Belle Plaine head coach Justin Johnston's Tigers meet again in the playoffs.
The No. 4-seeded Cardinals (4-4) and the No. 5-seeded Tigers (3-5) clash for the third time ever during tonight's 7 p.m. Section 3AAA quarterfinal game at Mahoney Field in Fairmont.
Ironically, Johnston guided Belle Plaine to a 26-19 Section 2AAA quarterfinal win over Fairmont during Mahoney's first playoff game as a head prep football coach on Oct. 23, 2007, in Belle Plaine. Johnston's Tigers then nipped Mahoney's Cardinals, 28-27, during the 2008 Section 2AAA semifinals in Fairmont.
"He's a good guy, but I'd like to win one from him," Mahoney said jokingly about his third sectional game against Johnston. "No, really, we're looking at the playoffs as a brand new season."
"The last time we played Fairmont in the playoffs, it was one of the best games I've ever been a part of," said Johnston, whose wife also gave birth to the couple's first child that day. "On film, it looks like Fairmont's players have gotten bigger and stronger than when we played four years ago. They've really bought into Mat's weight-room program, which was obvious when they ascended to second place at state last year.
"We're looking forward to another good game (tonight)."
After glancing at the starting lineups, tonight's sectional showdown pits Belle Plaine's promising youth movement against Fairmont's savvy veterans.
"We start 18 underclassmen, including a couple of sophomores and one freshman," said Johnston. "This (playoff game) will be a good measuring stick to see where our program's at and where we go from here."
Luke Narveson, a 6-foot-3, 170-pound freshman, will make his third start of the season under center for the Tigers tonight. Narveson started the season as one of four wide receivers within Belle Plaine's spread offense, garnering 14 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns over six games.
"He's very poised and has played quarterback at the younger levels, so the move was not a shock to him," said Johnston. "He's such a good athlete, we couldn't keep him off the field, so that's why he played wide receiver to start the season.
"The kids have really rallied behind him since we made the switch."
Since moving to quarterback, Narveson has completed 17 of 32 passes for 368 yards and three TDs en route to helping guide the Tigers to a 20-13 victory over Le Sueur-Henderson during Week 7 and a 27-7 win over Norwood-Young America last Wednesday night.
"They've got a freshman quarterback who distributes the ball well, and No. 2 looks like their best receiver and is a playmaker for them," Mahoney said in reference to senior wide receiver Nick Eliason, who tops the Tigers with 38 receptions for 669 yards and four TDs this season. "Defensively, we'll have to give them multiple looks and change our coverage to keep them guessing.
"On defense, they run a 4-4 and bring a lot of pressure, so we'll have to figure out how to counter that."
Mitchell Nelson, a 6-1, 200-pound junior inside linebacker, tops Belle Plaine's defense with 75 tackles, while sophomore inside linebacker Ben Stier and senior defensive tackle Brandon Boateng share the No. 2 spot on the tackling charts with 63 each. Stier and senior free safety Jayden Howie pace the secondary with two interceptions each.
"Our defense has started creating turnovers during the last couple of games, so that's a sign that they've grown on that side of the ball. We only start two seniors on defense, so it took a while for them to get used to the physicality of the game at this level," said Johnston.
Tonight, Johnston's defensive unit will put its mettle to the test against Fairmont's high-octane air attack. Senior quarterback Luke Hested completed an incredible 11-for-11 passes for 193 yards and a single-game school-record five TDs during the Cardinals' 45-0 rout over New Ulm last Wednesday night.
Hested has thrown for 827 yards and 11 TDs while sharing playing time with junior Mitch Pfingsten under center this season.
Senior split end Bryce Holm, who became the program's all-time leader in TD receptions during Week 8, caught four of Hested's scoring strikes at New Ulm's expense.
Holm tops Fairmont's sure-hands unit with 48 catches for 634 yards and nine TDs, while junior flanker Luke Becker returns to the starting lineup with a second-best 25 receptions for 395 yards and four TDs. Becker, who generated a single-game school-record 233 receiving yards in a 33-24 loss to No. 2-ranked Blue Earth Area during Week 7, returns after missing last week's regular-season finale due to a concussion.
Pfingsten, who has thrown for 943 yards and 10 TDs, also missed last Wednesday's game due to a concussion. Pfingsten's playing status is on a day-to-day basis.
But the Cardinals are not alone when it comes to losing players to concussions as the Tigers will hit the gridiron without two-way senior starter Nathan Phillips tonight.
"He (Phillips) started at guard on offense and at tackle on defense for us, but will be out due to a concussion," said Johnston. "Like Fairmont, injuries here and there have plagued us throughout the season."
Indeed. Running back Brandon Martin, one of Fairmont's 14 senior starters, finally returned to form to the tune of a season-high 200 rushing yards against New Ulm last Wednesday night. Martin missed significant playing time throughout the regular season due to a high ankle sprain.
"Hopefully, with Brandon healthy and back to full speed, we can establish our running game early to help give us more of a balanced offensive attack," said Mahoney, whose team has generated 60 percent of its total yards of offense - 1,868 - through the air this season.
Ironically, Belle Plaine's offensive plight has been a mirror image of its playoff counterpart. The Tigers have utilized their passing attack to generate 57 percent - 1,226 yards - of their total yards of offense this fall. In fact, Howie threw for 677 yards and six TDs through the first six games before being replaced by Narveson.
So, with the two teams being comparable on paper, what will be a key factor to tonight's game?
"When you get to the postseason, penalties and turnovers are magnified more than ever," said Mahoney. "It's the same thing that we talk about every week - stick to your assignments, make the reads and minimize your mistakes."