BURNSVILLE - During Friday's Class AA state tournament quarterfinal game against Caledonia, the Sibley East football team was faced with the challenge of eliminating a team with a 36-1 record over the past three seasons and four state titles over the past five years.
The Wolverines by no means looked outclassed on the field at Burnsville High School, but the Warriors' wealth of state tournament experience showed as they prevailed for a 27-6 victory to end Sibley East's season.
"They're a hell of a team," Sibley East junior Ben White said. "We played them well, but they've been here, they know what it's like."
Caledonia will now look to add to its recent slew of state championships (Class AA state champions in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011), with the next hurdle coming when the Warriors face BOLD at 11:30 a.m. Thursday in the semifinals at the Metrodome.
Although Sibley East hadn't ever qualified for the state tournament with the current combination of towns comprising the school, the team sent a definite message that they belong playing at the state tournament level.
"I think we played really hard, I think we played well - Caledonia was just a better football team tonight," Sibley East head coach Chuck Hartman said. "If we had another crack at them, we'd do some things differently schematically and maybe be in the ball game a little longer. That being said, they're a great team, they're at the top for a reason. What we've got to do this offseason is recommit to the weights again and get in there so that next year when we get a crack at them we can take them."
The Wolverines made a statement on the very first play of the game when White sacked Caledonia quarterback Alex Varney for a five-yard loss. Sibley East held the two-time defending state champions to a three-and-out on the series.
A 52-yard punt by the Warriors' Levi Schmitz pinned the Wolverines on their own 12 yard line, from which they only gained three yards before they were forced to punt.
Caledonia responded with a 41-yard scoring drive spurred by the running of Ryan Pitts, with Varney taking the ball into the end zone on a four-yard run with 6:58 remaining in the quarter. Mason Ashbacher's extra point kick gave the Warriors a 7-0 lead.
Sibley East quarterback Brody Rodning hit Tyler Bates for a 26-yard connection on the first play of the following drive, but the Wolverines were stalled at Caledonia's 37 yard line and were forced to punt.
The Wolverines finally broke through on their next possession, taking the ball 56 yards in 11 plays to score with 11:32 left in the first half.
Sibley East junior Erik Danielson executed a 13-yard run during the series to put the ball two yards short of the end zone, from where Brandon Ashton completed the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. Julius Asmussen's extra point kick missed wide left to leave the Wolverines trailing 7-6.
Sibley East failed to take advantage of a 47-yard run by Danielson on its next drive and an interception by Andrew Grack to set up yet another offensive series, with both drives ending in punts by Lukas Bullert.
After being held in check for three straight possessions, the Warriors' offense put together a 10-play scoring drive on the team's next possession to build momentum entering the half.
On a fourth-and-two play from the Wolverines' 21 yard line, Varney completed a pass to Schmitz in the right side of the end zone (Ashbacher extra point kick good) to give Caledonia a 14-6 lead, which held up as the score at halftime.
The Wolverines received the ball at the beginning of the second half, with Rodning hitting Steve Haefs (28-yard pass) and Bates (eight-yard pass) for a pair of first downs. However, the drive resulted in a turnover on downs at the Caledonia 29.
A sack by Alex Battcher helped stall the Warriors' ensuing drive, with Sibley East receiving the ball back at the Warriors' 49 yard line.
However, the Wolverines were held to a three-and-out, after which Caledonia took a firmer grasp on the game with a 64-yard scoring drive.
A 47-yard run by Pitts was the key play in the drive, with Varney running nearly untouched into the end zone on a 14-yard keeper (Ashbacher kick no good) with 1:15 left in the third quarter to increase the Warriors' lead to 20-6.
The two teams then traded punts, with the Wolverines receiving the ball on their own 23 with 9:11 remaining in the game.
Sibley East resorted to passing on the drive, with Rodning hitting Bates (28 yards) and Shayne Danielson (seven yards and 12 yards) for crucial connections to advance the ball to Caledonia's 40. However, Rodning was intercepted by Adam Buttell on a deep pass attempt on third-and-10 to give Caledonia the ball at its own 18.
The Warriors quickly took the ball down to the other side of the field, with Pitts rushing 33 yards and 10 yards on the first two plays of the drive. The series ended with Varney scoring his third touchdown of the game on a one-yard run (Ashbacher extra point kick good) to give the game its final score at 27-6.
Bates led the Wolverines' offense with nine receptions for 91 yards. Rodning was 9-for-21 passing for 127 yards and Erik Danielson led the team's run game with 83 yards on 14 carries.
"I'm pretty happy with how our offense played," Bates said. "Their defense was only averaging giving up six points a game, and that's incredible. We marched it down, we had quite a few yards, we just didn't finish and score enough."
White consistently made big plays to lead the Sibley East defense.
Sibley East ends the season with a 9-2 record. The team hopes that this year's breakout season is a sign of things to come for the program.
"We had a lot of underclassmen playing, so we'll gain a lot of experience for next year," White said. "We'll know what it's like next year, so hopefully we can come back and do even better... We've got to work hard in the offseason - we know we can do this, we know we can win, we've just got to keep going."
The loss was tough for the Wolverines' seniors, but ending their careers playing at the state tournament was a sign of the huge gains they helped the program make after being a one-win team the year before they entered high school.
"For one thing I feel that we helped out the program a lot - nobody expected anything from us this year," Bates said. "At the beginning of the season our goal was conference champs, section champs and move on - we reached that goal, I just wish we could have kept going."
Although he won't be a part of next year's team, Bates left the underclassmen with one simple message.
"Keep going - I'm expecting a state trophy in our trophy case next year," Bates said.