BLUE EARTH - A high-octane run-oriented offense, an efficient air attack, a stingy defense and the ability to produce pivotal plays.
Sound like a can't-miss combination?
Blue Earth Area mentor Randy Kuechenmeister and Tri-City United head coach Ken Helland each utilized the above four-part winning formula to reach tonight's 7 p.m. Section 3AAA football championship game at Wilson Field in Blue Earth.
While Kuechenmeister and his Class AAA, No. 2-ranked and No. 1-seeded Bucs (9-0) set their sights on a second consecutive state bid, Helland and his No. 3-seeded Titans (8-2) aim at qualifying for state during the program's first-ever football season.
"Honestly, I really thought we had a chance to get this far in the playoffs since both programs (Montgomery-Lonsdale and Le Center) had a number of good athletes returning this season," said Helland, who coached along the Le Center sideline during the previous 12 gridiron campaigns. "The challenge for me and my coaching staff was putting all the pieces together in the right combinations."
The Titans did exactly that last Saturday in Montgomery en route to generating 20 first-quarter points to help engineer a 27-17 sectional semifinal victory over upset-minded Redwood Valley.
"They like to run it at you in a variety of ways. They'll go out of the wishbone, a split backfield or double tight end (formation)," said Kuechenmeister. "The key for us will be figuring out how to stop their big-play capabilities."
Junior halfback Pat Lloyd struck like lightning on the first play from scrimmage by sprinting 97 yards for a Titan touchdown before senior halfback Austin Buss broke free for a 52-yard rumble to set up TCU's ensuing score during its second offensive series.
Junior quarterback Ted Christian fired a 5-yard TD pass to tight end Charley Simonette to cap TCU's six-play, 70-yard scoring march.
"We want to run the football, but we're very capable of throwing it, too," said Helland, whose multi-faceted offense amassed 300 yards on the ground to go with 80 more through the air. "We'll take whatever the defense wants to give us."
Ironically, Blue Earth Area's smothering 4-3 defensive scheme - spearheaded by hard-hitting middle linebacker Carter Hanson - has allowed a miniscule average of 11.0 points per outing, including limiting 2011 Class AAA state runner-up Fairmont to only one TD during the Bucs' 29-8 sectional semifinal triumph on Saturday at Wilson Field.
Another one of the hard-charging frontline Blue Earth Area defenders wreaking havoc during Saturday's semifinal proved to be junior end Gus Phillips, who still might remember some of Helland's plays from first-hand experience.
"He knows a number of their players and some of their tendencies, so that's helpful," Kuechenmeister said in reference to Phillips, whose family moved from Le Center to Blue Earth during the offseason. "But really, with the advent of exchanging film on-line, every team you play knows your strengths after analyzing every play from the game before."
"I was very impressed with Blue Earth Area's defense after watching the film. Coach Kuechenmeister and his staff do a great job of preparing their players," said Helland. "They are sound and disciplined, know how to hit and don't beat themselves by making mistakes."
Indeed. End Steven Plocker's early fumble recovery led to quarterback Kysten Zierke's 9-yard TD gallop before safety Dallas Barslou's recovery of a muffed punt set up Zierke's 24-yard scoring strike to split end Isaac Darrington to help stake the Bucs to a 14-0 halftime lead over the Cardinals.
Split end David Franta later caught a 55-yard TD spiral from Zierke during the fourth quarter before Zierke's interception from his linebacker position on defense led to Blue Earth Area's final score. Running back Carter Hanson's leaping 24-yard reception set up Zierke's 1-yard TD trot.
Across Wilson Field tonight, inside linebacker Kyle Ellings-worth and hard-rushing end Ryan Iverson will look to deliver another stellar defensive performance tonight.
Ellingsworth proved worthy of halting Redwood Valley's frenetic second-half comeback by recording a team-leading 13 tackles, while Iverson applied the pressure by notching a pair of quarterback sacks. Iverson's persistent presence in the Redwood Valley backfield helped TCU teammates safety Aaron Dwyer, cornerback Mason Brownlee and defensive tackle Tom Genelin garner interceptions on the day.
"They are primarily a four-man front defense and it's an attacking one," said Kuechenmeister. "Now, we'll have to figure out how to stop it or attack it."
While Fairmont's defense held Blue Earth Area's potent ground game to 97 yards, Zierke displayed his passing skills by completing 7 of 14 throws for a game-leading 186 yards and two TDs.
"Defensively, we'll have to prevent Blue Earth Area from making the big plays," said Helland, whose 4-4 defensive unit gives up a miniscule 13.9 points per game. "We'll have to limit those in order to have a chance to win."