Caledonia's four-headed monster needs to shine: The Warriors looking for a sixth state title
By Dugan Thomas
CALEDONIA, MN - 11/21/2012
The National Football League set up it's rules over the years to make the passing game a priority. College football's new rage is the spread offense, with an athletic quarterback who can run or pass.
High school football in Minnesota is still dominated by one thing - it starts with the run and ends with the run.
That's why Caledonia's quartet of Pitts, Strub, Swindell, and Varney need to be in the headlines this Friday night if they plan on bringing home another Class AA state title. Sounds like a great name for a law firm too - Pitts, Strub, Swindell, and Varney. We'll get to the Warriors' talented "Law Firm" in a little bit.
12-minute quarters in high school football has made running the ball priority number one. If you can control the ball, you control the clock. The Caledonia Warriors don't have to look too far to see proof of that. Three of their last four state titles were secured with a ground and pound running game that ate up the clock.
In 2007, the Warriors took control of a close 14-7 game with Zach Gran controlling the fourth quarter, and finishing with 151 rushing yards against Luverne.
In 2010, Connor McCormick, Josh Gran, and Ivan Augedahl combined for 338 rushing yards and four touchdowns to topple Triton 28-7.
And Connor McCormick did it again last year, using his strength to power for 183 yards and three touchdowns, to go along with quarterback Kennan Bruening's 97 rushing yards to take down Moose Lake-Willow River 27-0.
2008 was the only exception, as Caledonia used a balanced offensive attack to put up three rushing and three passing touchdowns, a total combined 373 yards of offense to blow away Luverne 47-7.
Next up is the Warriors backfield of 2012, and it has an opportunity to cement it's legacy in the state title game. The starting trio of Ryan Pitts, Brad Strub, and Jacob Swindell can play both tailback or fullback in Caledonia's system, depending on the play call. Each one of them has a unique running style, and they all play with a hard-nosed toughness that Caledonia is known for.
Brad Strub led the Warriors with 138 attempts for 998 yards and six touchdowns this season. He's at his best when he can get to the edge and use his speed to turn the corner and head up field. He reminds me of Darren McFadden of the Oakland Raiders when he runs. He's got this slashing running style with legs that just keep churning when he heads up field. Multiple times I've seen him hurdle defenders and get somersaulted into the air, with absolutely no fear whatsoever.
Last week Strub converted a crucial third and 14 with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter against BOLD. He raced for 22 yards to pick up the first down and keep the drive moving, eventually allowing Caledonia to pin BOLD deep and stop them on downs to end the game. Coach Brent Schroeder called it the play of the year, and it helped catapult the Warriors back into the state title game.
Jacob Swindell was the Warriors third leading rusher this season with 475 yards and 6 touchdowns. Out of all three starting running backs, he definitely spends the most time at the fullback position. I can see why Coach Fruechte likes to use Swindell at fullback. He has the speed to get through the hole and seal off linebackers, and the strength that's needed to set the edge on bigger defensive ends. That doesn't mean he can't carry the rock when he needs to.
Jacob's running style is more shifty, as he likes to pick his way through the hole, then turn on the burners when he sees daylight. He has great vision in the hole, and he always seems to find the right running lane to get down the field. Jacob is also stronger than he looks. He's had multiple long touchdown runs where defenders bounce right off him as he sprints into the end zone.
Quarterback Alex Varney is added into the rushing mix because the quarterback power sweep has become a staple of the Caledonia offense over the last few years. If the line and running backs block it up correctly it's almost impossible to stop. Varney took one 80 yards to the house against Rushford earlier this season, and flashed the speed that's made him one of the top dual threats in southeast Minnesota.
Alex also has the athleticism to escape the pocket and get up field for positive yards when a pass play breaks down. Many crucial drives were continued when he extended the play and broke tackles to get free to pick up the first down. He totaled 405 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground this year, and he's always a threat on the goal line to power it over.
Now the last member of the Warriors four-headed monster is the one I call the X-Factor. Ryan Pitts is his name, and slaying defenses is his game. You might take a look at his numbers from this year - 85 attempts for 545 yards and 7 touchdowns and think - nothing special there. Ryan missed three games earlier in the season with a severe ankle sprain, and another in the section playoffs with the flu. When he's healthy, he can be lights out, and defensive coordinators are having nightmares.
I watched Ryan Pitts take over two games already in the postseason. He put up 139 yards in the section title game against Chatfield, and 168 in the state quarterfinals against Sibley East. Caledonia decided to use it's physical nature up front, and let Ryan take care of the rest, working the ground and pound to perfection.
When I watch Ryan Pitts run...I see Percy Harvin. He hits the hole with authority and doesn't shy away from contact. He bounces off players and keeps his feet moving forward usually turning a three-yard gain into a 30-yard gain. If he gets through the line and into the second level, watch out....with his speed he can take it the distance at any given time.
Ryan Pitts is the X-Factor.
The one good thing about Caledonia, if Moose Lake-Willow River stacks the box and tries to take away the run, the Warriors have an outstanding passing game. Alex Varney has a strong arm, and he's not afraid to use it. He's passed for 730 yards and 15 touchdowns this season.
Adam Buttell was dominating at wide receiver earlier this year until a severe ankle sprain slowed him down, but he's healthy now and can catch just about everything thrown his way. Levi Schmitz has become the human highlight real in the playoffs, and he showed it off with a couple electrifying catches against BOLD to get Caledonia into the state title game. If the Rebels free safety gets lulled to sleep, the Warriors can slip tight end Alex Goetzinger behind the coverage for big gains. And If the corners lag too far off the Warriors receivers, Varney can throw the quick hitch to Goetzinger, Buttell, or Schmitz and get you 7-10 yards a crack.
OFFENSIVE LINE....I haven't forgotten about you. The offensive line is the only way these position players can get it done, and Caledonia has a Stellar one. Collin Coffield and Jeremy DeWall return from last year's outstanding line and didn't miss a beat all year long. Kevin Lapham came over from the defensive line to play both ways this year, and Jacob Dolle has been a rock in the middle. Shay Rohrer was forced into action when Sam Barton went down with a knee injury and he's been a pleasant surprise.
When you look at Coffield, DeWall, and Lapham, you definitely see Caledonia's vaunted strength program shining through. I've stood next to these guys down on the field, and they are chiseled. Nobody fires off the ball harder than the Warriors on both sides of the ball, and it's a testament to Caledonia's coaches for teaching the proper leverage technique. They also play with a certain mean streak you don't usually see in most high school football programs. I saw Jeremy DeWall down on the field 15 minutes after they won the section title game, and he still hadn't cracked a smile. He had the eye of the tiger, and he knew there was plenty of unfinished business left to take care of.
Now if Moose Lake-Willow River is reading this article, they're probably saying "what about us?....what about our running game?" And they would be right, because the Rebels have a talented foursome of their own, and they've put up some gaudy numbers this season. Their system is built around a couple elite athletes in the backfield, and they use motion and quickness to create confusion. Sometimes they only need a crack, and it's off to the races with this group. Michael Pender led the Rebels with 1661 yards and 24 touchdowns. Jake Disterhaupt is a Division 1 recruit who tallied 1522 yards and 19 touchdowns, and Mike Gassert combined with B.J. Young to garner another 1000-plus yards and 13 touchdowns.
Caledonia was dominate in containing Moose Lake-Willow River in the 2011 state title game. The Rebels could only muster 111 rushing yards and 118 yards of total offense. Their star running back Jake Disterhaupt was held to 27 yards rushing after averaging 172 yards a game - but 2012 is a new year, and you never know how much better a team can get in the off-season.
The Warriors need to rely on their star middle linebacker Zach Kasten to shut down the running lanes and keep the Rebels bottled up. Zach tallied 106 tackles this season and has flashed the speed and strength to make him one of the best linebackers in all of Minnesota. I don't need to talk about the Warriors defense really, because they are good....real good. And good as in every year, they have no weaknesses. They give up less than seven points a game and less than 180 yards a game. They just have to keep doing what they're doing and play lights out.
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR CALEDONIA:
RUN, RUN, RUN..........and mix in the pass.
Stop the Rebels run - don't give up the big play.
WIN the special teams battle.
If the game is close.....rely on your X-Factor!
Caledonia - 27 MooseLake-WillowRiver - 14