Caledonia hopes to ride its experience
It helps to have been there and done that.
That certainly personifies the Caledonia football team. The Warriors are the defending state Class AA champions, have won it three of the last four years, and are at state for the fifth straight year.
Saturday, at 5:45 p.m. in the Metrodome, the Warriors will be taking all of that experience to the state semifinals where they will meet 10-2 Warroad.
Fifth-ranked Caledonia (11-1) is hoping the Warroad players have stars in their eyes. Warroad hasn’t been to state since 1992.
If Caledonia has a clear advantage in this game, that’s it — experience. They’ve played in the Metrodome so many times that they could likely navigate from their home or visiting locker room, to the tunnel and onto the Metrodome turf with their eyes closed.
And that, admits Caledonia coach Brent Schroeder, counts for more than just a nice little trick.
"Experience plays a role, and the atmosphere (of the Metrodome) plays a role," Schroeder said. "Our guys know what it’s like. We like the Dome. Our kids can really run loose in there."
Speaking of running loose, that’s where Caledonia figures not to have much of an advantage over Warroad. That’s because as effective as Caledonia’s running game has been, Warroad’s has been even better.
It is led there by 5-foot-11, 165-pound halfback Aaron Haataja. The junior has had a spectacular year, with nearly 2,000 yards rushing. Haataja ran for 225 yards in the team’s state semifinal win over Paynesville Area.
"Aaron is a talented running back and a quality kid," Warroad coach Gabe Richards said. "Every play he runs hard and low to the ground. You’re going to have to make contact with him if you hope to bring him down."
As good as Haataja has been, Caledonia’s Schroeder says it’s Warroad’s massive offense line that is even more impressive.
There, he’s talking about such players as 6-5, 302-pound senior Drew Dorholt; 6-2, 301-pound junior Tyler James Fish; and 5-11, 255-pound junior Dylan Vandal. All are returning starters.
"They’ve got the biggest offensive line that I’ve seen," Schroeder said. "To counter their size we’re going to have to play gap-control defense, and play fast and physical."
Warroad, which has shown immense improvement from last year when it finished 3-6 overall, takes a 10-2 record into the semifinals. The losses were 55-48 on Oct. 4 to No. 4 ranked Hawley, and 28-26 in its season-opener to Crookston.
It has shown it can play and beat the big boys. It later beat Hawley 14-7 in its section semifinal, then beat No. 3 ranked Barnesville 21-20 in the final.
The Section 8AA champions are coming off a 34-12 win over Paynseville Area in the state semifinals.
Caledonia hasn’t lost since falling to No. 2 Class AAA ranked Plainview-Elgin-Millville in its season opener. And as Caledonia quarterback Kennan Bruening sees it, his team has come a long ways since then.
He says the biggest progress has come along the offensive line. It was the guys up front who helped him dash for 162 yards rushing last week in the team’s 47-12 thrashing of Maple Lake.
That was also a game that saw the Warriors’ rugged defense turn a pair of Maple Lake turnovers into touchdowns.
"We were struggling putting up points a little bit the beginning of the season," said Bruening, who has passed for 740 yards and rushed for 820 and 18 touchdowns. "But the difference between the beginning of the year and now is our offensive line is blocking so much better. They’ve really stepped it up. It’s fun to watch them, and it’s fun running behind them."
Caledonia is averaging 41 points, while giving up just 11 per game. Warroad scores 30 per game and gives up 19.