ARLINGTON - When you consider that a mere five years ago the Sibley East football team finished with a winless season, thoughts of winning the Minnesota River Conference title and qualifying for the state tournament may have seemed like distant dreams.
The Wolverines, however, entered this season determined to do just that.
After taking care of the MRC title this season during a 6-1 conference campaign, Sibley East defeated Waterville-Elysian-Morristown on Friday to win the Section 2AA championship, earning the program its first state tournament berth since 1986.
The Wolverines will open their state tournament campaign with a quarterfinal match-up against Section 1AA champion Caledonia at 7 p.m. on Friday at Burnsville High School.
"It's really great for the program to do what we've accomplished," Sibley East head coach Chuck Hartman said. "This program has gone from being at the bottom of the MRC, to now we're at the top. It wasn't an overnight thing, it's taken a lot of work on the coaches' part and from the kids. The kids have put in the time and now they're reaping what they've sown... After putting in all the work, we're having a great harvest right now."
For a team that was thrilled just to win a first-round playoff game last year for the first time since 2004, the Wolverines (9-1) suddenly find themselves matched up against the reigning Class AA state champion in Caledonia (10-0).
Having played against tough opponents all season long though, Hartman is confident that his players won't have any trouble rising to the occasion.
"I think the more adversity you face - and you come through it, like we've been coming through it - the tougher you get," Hartman said. "You can't go into the state tournament if you're not a tough person. We're a very mentally tough team, and we've had our games where we've had to battle."
The Wolverines have been effective on both sides of the ball this season, averaging 32 points per game while holding opponents to an average of 15 points per game. However, the team's defense has been even stronger than the numbers show, with the first-team defense allowing only eight points per game.
Sibley East's defense will have to continue to hold up strong in order for the team to have success against Caledonia's very physical offense.
"I'm expecting Caledonia to come out and do what Caledonia does," Hartman said. "They're a physical football team, they want to play a physical offense. They're going to run the ball. They come out and they're an I-formation based team generally, but they do some other things."
On defense, the Warriors will be just as tough.
"They're a power team, and we're a power team," Hartman said. "On defense they're a 4-4 based defense. They crowd the line of scrimmage, they've got good speed, they're aggressive - they're a good football team. I would expect them to play good football... They're a program that we want to be like, that's a heck of a program."
On offense, the Wolverines have had most of their success running the ball, scoring 34 rushing touchdowns compared to 11 passing touchdowns.
Junior Erik Danielson leads Sibley East with 1,274 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Senior Brandon Ashton has rushed for 721 yards and seven touchdowns and senior Aaron Bates has accumulated 553 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
Junior Brody Rodning has taken care of the quarterback position for the Wolverines, completing 41-of-83 passes for 653 yards and 11 touchdowns, while throwing only three interceptions. Senior Tyler Bates has been Rodning's primary receiver, hauling in 33 passes for 554 yards and all 11 receiving touchdowns.
Leading the Sibley East defense have been Ben White (61 solo tackles, 75 assists, seven tackles for loss, six sacks, two blocks), Bates (29 solo tackles, 28 assists), Ashton (16 solo tackles, 21 assists, six tackles for loss, four sacks), Cody Swenson (16 solo tackles, 25 assists, five sacks, three fumble recoveries) and Danielson (four interceptions - two returned for touchdowns).
Hartman has seen the Sibley East program make great strides since he took over in the 2008 season - the year after the team's winless campaign.
Back in April, Hartman remembers telling people at a Minnesota Football Coaches Association clinic that his team would "have an opportunity to be in the section title game." Despite realizing that it was a very realistic goal based on the talent and work-ethic exhibited by his players, he still realized that a lot of other factors had to go in his team's favor to fulfill that prediction, such as health.
"On the one hand, we thought we'd be here, then on the other hand we're still very humbled by it, and understand that a lot of things had to go right still for us to get where we're at," Hartman said. "We set some goals, and we felt we had a talented team and a good coaching staff - I've got great assistant coaches. The kids set goals, and they worked for those goals, and then obviously you have to have a lot of those intangibles go your way, too, to get this far."
Now the Wolverines have only one goal, the third of their three main goals for the season - take home a state title.
Prior to combining with Sibley East, Gaylord High School had a dynasty in the 1970s with four state titles of its own (Class C titles in 1972 and 1973 and Class B championships in 1975 and 1979).
Caledonia has won four state titles in its history, though most of the team's success has come in recent years as the Warriors have won the Class AA championship three of the past four years (the team's titles were in 1976, 2008, 2010, 2011).
The winner of Friday's game will play in the state semifinals on Nov. 15 at the Metrodome against either BOLD (10-0) or Holdingford (10-1). The Class AA state championship game will be played at the Metrodome on Nov. 23.
"The big thing is we believe we can beat anybody," Hartman said. " We have believed that all season. That goes for Caledonia too. We think Caledonia is a great team - all eight teams left in AA are great teams, and any one of us could win the whole thing."
Having played exclusively on grass fields throughout the season, the Wolverines practiced on a turf field in Chaska on Tuesday to get acclimated to playing on the turf at Burnsville High School and in the Metrodome.
When all the preparation has been said and done, Hartman knows that all his team can do on Friday is play the same brand of football that has brought the Wolverines such a successful season, one that has been years in the making.
"The best advice that somebody gave me, a coaching friend that I know that's been [to the state tournament], was 'Hey, you've just got to be Sibley East. Whatever it is Sibley East does well, that's what you have to do, then do it better than they do what they do,'" Hartman said.