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Nine-man football | Spring Grove sets sights on another title

November 23, 2018

Last year at this time, Spring Grove was preparing to play for what would be the school’s first state high school football championship. This year, the Lions are preparing to defend their title against Mountain Lake Area — a team that might be even hungrier than Spring Grove was last year.

“This would be our first state championship in any sport since 1939,” said Mountain Lake head coach Tim Kirk. “We’ve been to state four of the past seven years, and we lost in the first round every time.”

Now the only thing standing between the Wolverines (12-0) and a Nine-Man state championship is Spring Grove, which will bring a 27-game winning streak to U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday.

Spring Grove head coach Zach Hauser said last year’s experience has made things just a bit easier this year for the Lions.

“It helps just being familiar with how everything works up there,” he said. “But really, now that Mountain Lake has played in the semifinals, they probably feel the same way. They’ve gotten those first-game-at-U.S. Bank jitters out of the way, so I think both teams will just be ready to go play football.”

Hauser said the Wolverines will be a formidable foe. “They’re just a really solid team with no weaknesses,” he said. “They’ll probably be the most physical team we’ll play this year. They’re really athletic, they tackle well, so we’re going to have our hands full.”

One major challenge for the Lions will be the variety of looks that Mountain Lake’s spread offense will use. “They like to run the ball, but they have a lot of different formations and sets,” Hauser said. “Sometimes they’ll have five wide receivers, sometimes they’ll have three guys in the backfield, and their running back is something like 6-feet-4, 200 pounds. You don’t usually see running backs who are that tall, but he’s a really good player.”

That player is Drake Harder — and he’s not even his team’s top running back.

“Harder is our fullback or our H-back, and he’s probably got five- or six-hundred yards rushing,” Kirk said. “Our leading rusher is Mace Herrig, a sophomore, who had a little over 1,000 yards. And our quarterback, Abraham Stoesz, has more than 1,000 yards rushing, too.”

Of course, Spring Grove also brings a pretty good offense into the title game. Senior quarterback Alex Folz has been virtually unstoppable all year when he keeps the ball, but in the Lions’ 48-12 semifinal win over Cromwell-Wright, Spring Grove repeatedly used bubble screens to get the ball outside, with wideout Noah Elton pulling in 13 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown.

Hauser said he isn’t sure what Mountain Lake will do defensively to try to slow down Spring Grove’s offense, but the Lions will probably rely on the screen pass once again.

“If we feel like we can block it well enough and get it out there on time, we’ll definitely go back to it,” Hauser said. “Alex has done a really good job of reading the defenses and seeing where guys are and taking what the defense is giving us. That’s what we want to do — let Alex get up there, make a read and make a decision.”

And if Mountain Lake starts sneaking up to defend against the screen pass, Folz and the Lions are more than ready to go for the big strike over the top.

“We have to do that to keep the defense honest, to keep them from teeing off on our receivers,” Hauser said.

Kirk fully understands how big of a challenge Mountain Lake will face when Folz has the ball in his hands.

“Nobody’s going to shut him down, but we have to try to slow him down for periods of time,” Kirk said. “I like everything about Alex Folz. We’re going to put pressure on him, but he’s still going to get his runs. Plus, he throws a really, really good ball. When he has time, from what I’ve seen, he’ll put that thing on the nose. He’s the best small-town quarterback I’ve seen in all the years I’ve coached, but we’re excited to play him. We’re not going to back down.”

If Mountain Lake has one advantage going into Friday’s game, it might be depth. The Wolverines probably use more players than any other nine-man team in the state.

“For many years, even we were 11-man, we tried the best we could to have most of our offensive and defensive lineman not go both ways,” Kirk said. “Obviously, you can’t always do that, but when we switched to nine-man about seven years ago, it got easier. Right now, our offensive line and defensive lines for the most part play just one way. That’s a huge luxury for us, and it makes a big difference. We’ve worn down a lot of teams this year.”

But if the game is tight at the end, don’t expect Spring Grove to fold. While the Lions have blown out plenty of opponents while piling up 27 consecutive wins, they know how to play four quarters — the winning streak includes three one-point victories, with two of them coming in win-or-go-home situations.

Hauser would prefer that his team avoid that kind of drama on Friday, but for now he just wants to make sure his team is fully focused on the opportunity they’ve earned.

“We’ve told the guys that this isn’t something that happens every year, that you don’t get opportunities like this very often,” Hauser said. “To have the opportunity to play for another state championship is something they’ll remember forever. It’s fun to be part of it, seeing how excited they are to show up every day, whether it’s for film, lifting or practice. It’s pretty neat.”