by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
An explosive St. Thomas Academy team with a healthy respect for Elk River’s ability to score will be the Elks opponent in their first state tournament game since 1993.
The Elks, 6-5 with four straight wins, take on the Cadets, 9-1 and averaging 38 points, on Friday at Osseo, 7 p.m., in the Class 5A quarterfinals.
“This will be a real challenge for us and should be a very fun game,” said Cadets coach Dave Ziebarth. “We are a team that loves to compete and Elk River seems to play the same way. Our kids are excited for the challenge of taking on Elk River on Friday night.”
With five running backs sharing the load in a variation of the Wing-T offense, and a quarterback, Keegan Zimprich, with 13 TD passes against just three interceptions, the Cadets have scored in the 40’s or 50’s in six of nine games.
“I would say that one of our strengths are our team speed,” said Ziebarth. “We aren’t very big and need to rely on our speed to offset our lack of size.”
The guys carrying the ball are Nick Waldvogel, Pat McFadden, Danny McManus, Mario Bognanno, and Joe Herbeck.
The Cadets are ranked No. 4 in Class 5A. Their lone loss was a 20-13 upset against Mahtomedi, which finished 6-4.
The Elks had a 2-5 start against a schedule stronger than faced by many Class 5A schools. They’ve won three straight on the road in the playoffs.
Coach Steve Hamilton’s prodigious ground-based offense, fraught with baffling misdirection plays, ran wild in victories of 51-28 over Willmar and 53-42 over Rogers. The Elks then needed a big game from defense and special teams to get past St. Michael-Albertville 24-10 in the section finals.
The marquee offensive player has been 5-10, 160-pound fullback Denis Bardashevskiy, who has rolled up 1,843 yards rushing for the season and has scored eight touchdowns in the playoffs including two 90-yard runs and one 81-yarder.
“We are very impressed with Elk River,” said Ziebarth. “Your fullback, and in effect all your backs, are very scary. The offense is difficult to prepare for and will present us some very unique and difficult challenges. The misdirection aspect of the offense is very tough.”
Ziebarth praised Bardashevskiy’s patience, vision and explosiveness.
“Unfortunately there are others almost as dangerous,” said Ziebarth, “so we have a tremendous challenge on our hands.”
STMA coach Jared Essler commented about the Elks: “They are somewhat predictable in what they do, and I mean predictable in a good way. They don’t beat themselves. They take pride in what they do. Their simplicity means they get a lot more reps at it, and they are really good at what they do.”
The Elks usually get some good runs from the quarterback, too, whether it’s Austin Larson, Jordan Johnson of Clay Elrod. Also toting the ball are Maclean Berglove, Nate Storby and Devin Donelson.
The Cadets are tough to score against, allowing 11 yards per game. Their defensive mainstays are outside linebackers Parker Chapman and Benny Williams, inside backer Jeremiah Kraker, ends Mack Marrin and Connor Bonk, and safety Danny McManus.
From scouting the Elks win over STMA, the Cadets know they’ll be dealing with the Elk defense’s “aggressiveness, speed, and multiple fronts and blitzes,” Ziebarth said. “They fly to the ball and if you make a mistake they are very opportunistic.”
St. Thomas Academy, a military school in Mendota Heights, has a stellar academic and athletic tradition, including the football program with 16 state appearances and four times in the semifinals, most recently in 2010. The Cadets haven’t won a state title since 1975, and lost in the finals in 2002 and 2006.
The Elks have five state appearances and one Prep Bowl trip, losing the title game in 1992.
The other pairings are Mankato West (4-6) vs. Owatonna (10-0), Moorhead (10-0) vs. Bemidji (8-3), and top-ranked Totino-Grace (10-0) vs. Apple Valley (8-2).
Winners of Friday’s quarterfinals advance to semifinals in the Metrodome. The Elks-Cadets winner will face the Mankato West-Owatonna winner at 2 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 16.