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Determined Chatfield excited to be back at 'The Bank'

The Gophers quest for back-to-back state titles will be tested against perennial Section 5AA power Eden Valley-Watkins in a Class AA state semifinal on Friday.

Chatfield, Blue Earth Class AA Quarterfinal football
Chatfield’s Cole Johnson (2) makes a catch for a touchdown during the Class AA Quarterfinal football game against Blue Earth Area on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, at Mayo High School in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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CHATFIELD — The Chatfield football team has been here before.

For the second consecutive season, the Gophers find themselves preparing to play at the cozy confines of U.S. Bank Stadium. Only this time, the preparations for the defending Class AA state champions don’t include the hike down old Highway 30 to use the turf in Austin.

Instead, the bubble (temporary dome over the football field) at Rochester Community and Technical College — with a little Chatfield ingenuity — has become the Gophers home this week.

“We were fortunate enough to have RCTC get their bubble up just in time,” coach Jeff Johnson said. “We had some local dads out there and haul some heavy lighting in there for us and get that all wired up. So yeah, we're good to go.
“... We had a lot of trips over (to Austin). It’s kind of a miserable bus ride on (Interstate)-90 and (Highway) 30. A lot of bumps. So we’re really glad that the RCTC one is up.”

There have been few bumps in the road lately for the Gophers.

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Their winning streak reached 23 games after beating Blue Earth Area 35-6 in a Class AA state quarterfinal — a game in which hybrid running back/quarterback Sam Backer totaled 208 yards rushing and had three passing touchdowns, while Cole Johnson delivered the highlight of the year to set up a date with fifth-ranked Eden Valley-Watkins in the state semifinals at 11:30 a.m. Friday in Minneapolis.

Perennial Section 5 power EV-W (11-0) is in its 11th state tournament and second consecutive — falling in the quarterfinals in 2021. The Eagles made it one step further this year with a 14-7 win over Sauk Centre. It was the sixth time they have held their opponent to single digits and will enter game No. 12 only allowing 11.6 points per contest.

Yet, it’s hard to believe the Eagles’ defense has seen anyone like the aforementioned Backer.

Chatfield, Blue Earth Class AA Quarterfinal football
Chatfield’s Sam Backer (21) runs the ball during the Class AA Quarterfinal football game against Blue Earth on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, at Mayo High School in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

The Minnesota State University, Mankato commit now sits at 7,045 yards rushing for his career, needing 458 more to pass McLeod West’s Tyler Evans (7,503, 1999-01).

“He’s having a career year,” Johnson said. “He's already over his rushing totals that he had last year. Obviously, he's 400 yards away from the state record, and he knows about it. But we're just focused on getting these next two wins. We've always been a one week at a time-type of a team. We put that on our weight bar in the weight room and we focus on that and when we get done with it, we scratch them off and then we move on to the next one. So he's right there with that same mentality. He really has his eyes on the prize that's right ahead of us at the time.”

Yet, these Gophers have shown time and again they are so much more than just Backer.

Kail Schott and Chase Johnston have been great in the backfield, while Drew O’Connor and Johnson help fuel an underrated aerial attack. Each have had their moments this season. Against BEA, it was Johnson that made the play that still has everybody buzzing.

The 6-4, 190-pound receiver outjumped a Blue Earth Area defender to haul in a one-handed TD pass and give the Gophers a 14-0 halftime lead. Johnson finished with two catches for 32 yards and the TD.

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“By far the best catch I’ve ever made,” Johnson said after the game. “Once I caught that ball, at first I didn’t know if I was in the end zone, so once I saw that I was in the end zone, I still couldn’t tell if it was real or not. I had to double check and look into the crowd to see what was going on.”

The overall depth is a big reason why.

“A lot of your attention is going to be on Sam in the backfield,” Jeff Johnson said. “If we can get the ball spread around and can be pretty even with our attack, our offense looks pretty good.”

The Eagles offense also knows a little something about balance.

Led by their eighth-year coach Adam Tri, who is currently in the top 12 in the state for career receptions after graduating from EV-W in 2003, the Eagles have an offense that mirrors Chatfield’s. It’s one that isn’t afraid to spread the ball around, utilizing some nice athletes on the outside with a good blend of run and pass.

It will be a good test for a terrific Chatfield defense that is allowing just more than nine points per game this season.

"They have a handful of kids that are anywhere from 6-foot to 6-foot-2 and then they can they can run," Jeff Johnson said. "We don't want to have them get out into the open space, that's for sure. We're going to want to continue to play our strong Chatfield defense and swarm, swarm these guys and get a lot of a lot of people to the football and use good fundamental tackling. When you're in a big space like U.S. Bank Stadium, you tend to shut your brain off sometimes when it comes to the fundamentals and really the best tackling teams win at this level. So we went back to some basic, fundamental tackling."

Chatfield is hoping that extra work shows up for what should be a raucous crowd on Friday.

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“Our community really loves this time of year,” Johnson said. “I have to say, I've watched teams out there and our fans, we really travel well, even compared to some of the bigger schools, so it's fun to watch everybody rally around us at this time of year.”

Alex VandenHouten has been a sports reporter at the Post Bulletin since Sept. 2021. He loves to go hiking, biking, snowshoeing and just simply being outdoors with his wife Olivia. Readers can reach Alex at avandenhouten@postbulletin.com.
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