Chatfield ready to go, Backer or not
The Chatfield football team will pursue a state championship on Friday. The Gophers are ready to do that whether they have star running back Sam Backer or not.
Ever since an admittedly rocky start to the season, the Chatfield High School football team has made a habit of dominating its opponents, usually by margins of at least 2-3 touchdowns, oftentimes more.
Last week in the Class AA state semifinals, Chatfield walked a much different path to victory.
The Gophers entered their final-four clash with Barnesville riding an 11-game winning streak, a span over which they scored at least 40 points on seven occasions, defeating their opponents in that stretch by an average margin of 28.7 points. Last week, however, they trailed for a vast majority of the game — 40 minutes, 21 seconds in all — not finding their first lead until the dying moments of the fourth quarter.
Still, they prevailed, despite at one point falling behind by 10 points in the second half; despite losing their best player to ejection midway through the third quarter, already trailing.
The No. 7-ranked Gophers demonstrated the extent of their toughness that day. And that is why they’ll compete for their fifth state championship in school history this Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium. They’ll battle Section 6 champion West Central Area/Ashby for the title, with kickoff set for 1 p.m.
“I always knew that our team wasn’t going to give up, no matter what had already happened,” Chatfield junior wide receiver Cole Johnson said. “We still had players on the field that could make plays.”
As for Chatfield’s approach to Friday’s title game, things may very well change if quarterback Sam Backer, the ejected player in question, wins a lawsuit against the Minnesota State High School League, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court. Backer was disqualified from last week’s semifinal game against Barnesville after picking up a second unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty midway through the third quarter. That disqualification also brought with it an automatic one-game suspension.
For now, the Gophers must prepare as if Backer — their star, who has rushed for more than 2,300 yards this season along with 39 touchdowns — will not play.
But even if Backer doesn’t play, his impact will still be felt on the field.
That impact will manifest in the performance of sophomore quarterback Parker Delaney, who stepped in for Backer last week against Barnesville and threw two second-half touchdowns in a dramatic come-from-behind victory. Delaney finished that game 7-of-17 from the pocket for 175 yards and the two scores, the last of which gave Chatfield its first and final lead with 2:21 to play.
But those heroics were far from Delaney’s first moments on the varsity field.
The Gophers, again, have made a habit of beating teams badly this season, including seven victories by a margin of at least 30 points. Those wins, and those lopsided scores, have been largely because of Backer, who has typically run his opponents out of contention with plenty of time still on the clock.
When that happens, Delaney steps in to close out the game.
“Sam being as good as he is, that gave Parker the opportunity to play a lot of football this year in the second half, and last week, he was not uncomfortable when he went into the game,” Chatfield coach Jeff Johnson said. “If we wouldn’t have been able to put up that many points that fast against teams, Parker wouldn’t have played in some of those second-half games. That’s kind of the irony of it. So even though Sam (might not be) on the field, his impact is still out there for us.”
If Backer is not able to play on Friday, Delaney isn’t the only one who will need to step up.
In support of a new quarterback, senior running back Jackson Schild will need to bring his A-game. Same goes for Cole Johnson and Luke Carrier, the two recipients of Delaney’s second-half touchdowns last week.
The Gophers’ offensive line, which has been so dominant all season, will need to produce arguably its best performance of the year.
Their defense — which has limited opponents to 13.4 points per game during its current 12-game winning streak, including two shutouts — will need to continue to keep opposing offenses off the scoreboard, just as it did against Barnesville.
They’ll need everyone.
“It’s tricky, because without Sam, I’m not sure we make it as far as we have. He’s still the icing on the cake for us. You can’t replace a kid like that. But now everybody has to step it up big time,” said Jeff Johnson, who is hoping to lead the Gophers to their first state title since 2013.
“Our defense is going to have to step it up a notch,” he said. “Everybody is just going to have to play that much better. That’s really what our focus is right now. Everybody needs to do that much more. I know these kids can continue to play hard, play physical, play fast; and if they do that, we have a very good shot.
“We’re just going to stay unified. I think it’s going to fire our kids up even more. We’re still one big family, and we’re going to fight for each other out there."