On paper, the Minnesota College Athletic Conference State Championship Sunday, Nov. 10, should favor the Itasca Vikings
Itasca will face the Central Lakes College Raiders at 1:30 p.m. on the St.Cloud State University campus in a rare matchup of two Eastern Division teams.
The Vikings were the best offensive team in the conference this season averaging just over 36 points per game and 419 yards. The Raiders were in the bottom half of the 11 team field, finishing seventh in both points per game (24) and in yardage (314).
"Their tailback Joshua Booker has the ability to change a game," Raiders interim head coach Robb Kolodziej said. "Tons of speed, second in the league in rushing yards per game and tied for most rushing touchdowns in the league. Wide Receiver Antwan Downs is also a game changer. He leads the country in yards per game, per catch and in touchdowns."
Under the direction of third-year head coach Weldon Braxton, the Vikings finished the regular season 6-2, which was good for a second place finish behind Mesabi. Itasca won its first playoff game over Rochester 53-24 and then defeated Western Division No. 1 seed North Dakota State College of Science 40-34 Nov. 3 to earn a birth in the championship game.
Central Lakes finished the regular season 3-5 and needed a win over Northland along with a Vermilion loss on the last day of the season to make the playoffs.
However, the Raiders might be the last team Itasca would have hoped to face in the championship game.
The two teams matched up Oct. 5 in Grand Rapids with the Raiders holding the Vikings offense to just 238 total yards of offense in a 14-6 Central Lakes win. The Raiders out-rushed the Vikings 122 to 84.
"The weather for the previous game was terrible and the footing was even worse," Kolodziej said. "Whenever the weather is bad, controlling field position, having a good run game and special teams are huge. They were very important on that day and I would guess the same will be true again this Sunday with a forecast of highs to be in the teens."
Because of two forfeits, the Raiders started the season 0-5, but won their last five games and have outscored their opponents 150-44. Raider quarterback Jakob Olson finished fourth in the conference in yards per game with 139.7, just in front of Itasca's Brandon Hokkanen. The two switched spots in touchdowns with Hokkanen getting the fourth spot and Olson finishing fifth.
Rashaun Cage and Jesse Sherwood lead a Raiders’ rushing attack that found its legs in the second half of the season by averaging 138 rushing yards per game.
Jayou Mensah, who caught six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown in the Raiders’ 35-6 win over Minnesota West Sunday, leads a receiving core that includes Alec Frederick, Mike Bostrom and Talon Bradley.
"We have a veteran staff on offense and they have done a great job mentoring our young men," Kolodziej said. "Specifically (Offensive Coordinator) Riley Atkinson's relationship with Jakob Olson has been fun to watch. They are in the office a lot breaking down film, self scouting and game planning together. Offenses are a lot more complex than defense and sometimes it takes a little while for them to gel together. And as a former linemen I am biased, but I think our offensive line play has been pretty dominant the last four weeks."
The Raiders’ offensive line has not given up a sack in the two playoff games and the running backs have totaled 322 rushing yards. They will need to locate Itasca's Cameron Strapp.
"Strapp plays sideline to sideline and never quits,” Kolodziej said. “He leads the league in solo tackles and is fourth in the league in sacks. Strapp did miss last week's game.”
The Raiders’ defense is also peaking at the right time. After defeating Mesabi 30-2 in the quarterfinals, Central Lakes gave up just a late touchdown in their win over the Blue Jays last Sunday. CLC has tallied 17 sacks in the last two games.
"The players have really taken ownership of our defense,” Kolodziej said. “I am just an advisor in terms of schematics. Realistically the offenses success has probably been the biggest key to our defenses success. Their long drives and controlling the ball have kept our D fresh and aggressive."
Safety Brady Anderson has two interceptions in the last two games. Ridge Reed started the season as a running back and was switched to defense after the Raiders had a number of injuries. His interception return for touchdown in the win over Mesabi was one of the key plays. He also tallied 4 1/2 sacks in the win over Minnesota West.
"This year, I do think the Eastern Division was a little tougher/deeper than the West," Kolodziej said. "Last year, it was the opposite. Northland and NDSCS were the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the league and in the same division. Every year this league is anybody's to win. With only two years to work with these young men, you recreate your culture every year."
What: Minnesota College Athletic Conference State Championship
Who: No. 2 seeded Itasca (8-2) vs. No. 4 seeded Central Lakes (5-5)
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10
Where: St. Cloud State University