West Central Area-Ashby and Chatfield are preparing for the biggest game either of these programs has played in years, and unless something changes leading up to kickoff on Friday afternoon, there has already been a curveball thrown into the equation.
Chatfield is 12-1 out of Section 1AA and was led by junior quarterback Sam Backer this season. Backer ran for more than 2,000 yards and 39 touchdowns while also posting efficient passing numbers to keep opponents honest.
Backer had already rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in the state semifinals against Barnesville on Nov. 18 when he was ejected from the game in the third quarter after picking up his second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“They (officials) did not explain it to me,” Chatfield head coach Jeff Johnson said after the game. “All I heard from guys on our sideline was they wrapped up his leg and they wouldn’t let it go and he was trying to kick himself free.”
Minnesota State High School League rules state that any student or coach disqualified from a contest by game officials will be ineligible for the next regularly-scheduled game. That means the Gophers are expected to be without Backer for Friday’s state title game when they kickoff at 1 p.m. at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis against the Knights.
“That very much changes the dynamic of the Gophers,” WCA-Ashby head coach Nate Wood said. “But they are an athletic, physical team. They are strong up front on both sides of the ball and have athletes that make plays in space. (Having Backer out) honestly makes game planning a little more difficult because we just don't know what they will do with him gone. But at this point, a team will have to do what they do best, so it shouldn't really change tendencies or favorite plays.”
On Tuesday evening, the Post Bulletin Newspaper in Rochester reported that the family of Backer was seeking to overturn the suspension by filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Minnesota. The family is identified in court documents by their initials, but the lawsuit states that S.B. "is the starting quarterback for the Chatfield Varsity Football Team."
The lawsuit alleges the suspension was "improper."
"Under Minnesota law, interscholastic sports participation is a constitutionally protected property right included as part of a student’s right to an education, which cannot be taken away without due process," the filing says. "Due to the MSHSL’s lack of an appeals process for review of unsportsmanlike conduct penalty calls leading to ejection and subsequent automatic suspension, SB was denied a constitutionally protected property right without due process."
The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order lifting the suspension.
Chatfield proved they have good players around Backer by beating Barnesville (9-3) 22-18 during the semifinals. Sophomore Parker Delaney came in at quarterback and threw for two late touchdowns that completed a comeback for the Gophers that saw them trailing 12-0 after one quarter.
Delaney finished 7-of-17 passing for 175 yards. Luke Carrier and Cole Johnson both had more than 70 yards receiving, and Isaac Erding’s 32-yard touchdown catch in the second half got Chatfield within four points before Carrier’s 47-yard receiving touchdown won it.
The Gophers now have to prove they can solve a West Central Area-Ashby defense that has been as good as any Class AA team in the state playoffs. The Knights have allowed just two touchdowns in a 14-6 win over Moose Lake-Willow River and an 8-7 win over Maple River. That’s against a team in Moose Lake-WR that averaged 44.9 points this season, and a Maple River program that averaged 34.6 points.
“The keys this week remain the same as they have the past few weeks,” Wood said. “Play good, solid defense by doing your job. There is nothing that will happen that you haven’t seen before. Play with great leverage and fly around.”
Wood said nothing changes across the board this week in terms of their preparation or what they have to do. It’s business as usual for the Knights.
“For offense, defense, and special teams-- great effort and great discipline,” Wood said. “This is our main message for the whole season. Every single player can give great effort and stay disciplined. Focus on the small things and the big things take care of themselves.”
WCA-Ashby coaches will do everything they can to make sure their players don’t get caught up in the magnitude of this game, but players also are not immune to everything around them. It is quite a feeling walking into an NFL stadium to play in a state tournament.
“I think it will be better this week than the semifinal game,” Wood said. “It is impossible not to be a little awestruck stepping out on the field. I know personally it impacted me a little and I know the boys are no different. But hopefully, having been through it, and won, we can approach this game in a calm, confident manner.”
Wood was joined at the postgame press conference by players Evan Paulson, Mattson Hoff, Tyler Stone, Cole Anderson and Anthony Sykora after last Friday’s win over Maple River. All of them were energized by this opportunity, but also seemed well aware that the job was not done.
“You get to play on the final day of the football season, but none of you are smiling,” one of the reporters in attendance said.
That brought a smile to their faces.
This is a unique opportunity. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for some programs. The Knights have done everything right through two state tournament games by taking a day-by-day approach to get this chance.
Nothing will change as they try to get one more win and secure the program’s first-ever state championship.
“This whole season we have tried to stay grounded and live in the moment. There is no tomorrow,” Wood said. “We need to understand that we don’t need to be perfect to do something great. We just need to do everything within our ability to be successful. If we do that, then no matter the result, we can walk out of U.S. Bank Stadium with heads held high.”
(Emily Cutts and Jason Feldman of the Rochester Post Bulletin contributed to this story)