GRAND RAPIDS — One of the favorite sayings for the Grand Rapids High School football coaching staff is that “It’s not who you play but how you play.”
With that being said, the Thunderhawks will attempt to follow that guideline as it prepares for its Section 8AAAA semifinal contest at Noble Hall Field in Grand Rapids on Saturday, Nov. 21, at 5 p.m. against Detroit Lakes.
The Thunderhawks – 6-0 for the season – received the No. 2 seed in the tournament. Defending Class AAAA state champion Rocori is also undefeated and received the No. 1 seed for the tournament.
Action began Tuesday when No. 4 seed Willmar took on No. 5 seed Little Falls. In semifinal games in the five-team section, top seed Rocori plays the winner of the Willmar/Little Falls game while and No. 2 seed Grand Rapids faces No. 3 seed Detroit Lakes. The section championship game is slated for Friday, Nov. 27, at Alexandria.
Grand Rapids coach Greg Spahn feels that the 6-0 record in the regular season made it a success.
“We met the expectations that we set on ourselves and the kids continued to execute regardless of who we played,” Spahn said. “They sustained a high level of play from the opening kick against Duluth East through the final whistle against Hibbing. We have earned a spot in the playoffs and hopefully we can continue to execute.”
Spahn said Detroit Lakes is traditionally one of the top programs in the state. It has won three state championships, in 1992, 1994 and in 2000.
“Detroit Lakes want to run the ball and play solid defense,” Spahn said. “They have some monstrous lineman and a pretty good tailback. If we are to win, we need our defense to continue its stellar play. We need to keep protecting the ball on offense and hopefully be explosive.
“But I think the key all year has been how stout our defense has been and that’s not going to change in playoffs.”
Many players in the skilled positions for Grand Rapids have contributed offensively this year led by senior quarterback Trent Johnson who has passed for 11 touchdowns and scored eight more with his legs. For the season, Johnson has completed 27 of 49 passes for 489 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Dan Wohlers has 139 receiving yards to lead the Thunderhawks while Ben Bonner has three touchdown receptions and Dane Kennedy has two.
Grand Rapids has five backs who have rushed for at least 198 yards led by Johnson who has picked up 386 yards (9.9 yards per carry) and scored eight touchdowns. Kennedy has averaged 10.48 yards per carry with 325 yards and three touchdowns while Caden Hofstad averages 9.65 yards per carry with 299 yards and three touchdowns. John Bonner averages 9.63 yards per carry with 260 yards and six touchdowns and Max Bergman averages 10.42 yards per carry with 198 yards and four touchdowns.
Andy Thomsen had 10 solo tackles, three sacks and 33 assists this season on the defense for the Thunderhawks while Kennedy has nine solo tackles, 12 assists and two interceptions. Karter Olson has seven solo tackles, 15 assisted tackles and two interceptions and Derek Bolin has recorded five solo tackles and seven assisted tackles. Jackson Weston has two solo tackles and seven assisted tackles and Noah Schmoll had four solo tackles, seven assisted tackles and three sacks and Beau Linder has two solo tackles, 15 assists and two sacks. Grant Giffen has three solo tackles 12 assists and one sack.
“We have some pretty talented kids and pretty smart kids and they are going to take what the defense is giving them,” Spahn said. “There is a lot of trust that we have with Trent and everybody else on offense that they have seen it all and know how to make those adjustments on the run. That’s the experience that you get playing three years as varsity starters gives you. Hopefully that continues.
“We have been able to move the ball against everybody and score. As long as we don’t turn it over we should be OK.”
Spahn said it is important to have good offensive balance between the run and the pass.
“The threat of it and the ability to execute through the air efficiently makes it much harder to defend,” Spahn said. “It helps you break tendencies and gives you more options. With Trent and our receivers and our backs, we have that this year.”
Spahn said that while Detroit Lakes has some big linemen, the smaller Thunderhawk linemen should do just fine.
“We tell our boys often that in the game of football speed and quickness kills,” the coach explained. “We are going to use that. To be honest, I think we get too hung up on size in this game and the reality of it is if you are quicker you are typically going to win any of those battles. So I think it will be a challenge but I think our boys up front are going to rise to the occasion.
“Again, it’s on how we play, not who we play, and how we execute.”
Spahn was asked what he thinks will be keys in coming away with a win over Detroit Lakes and he said, “We are going to have play solid defensively, we are going to have to limit their running game, and hopefully get a turnover or two on that side of the ball. Offensively, we have to continue to be explosive and not turn the ball over. This is a game that very well may come down to execution on special teams. So, we will make sure that we are sharp in that area as well.”
Spahn said the team is happy to have earned a home playoff game.
“We are going to value that, cherish that, and go play regardless of how many people we can have physically there,” Spahn said. “Hopefully everyone who wants to watch will be able to watch on the street.”