Three of the eight teams in the Class 3A state tournament faced each other before the season even began.
Two of those teams will square off in the state quarterfinal as the Pequot Lakes Patriots face the Mora Mustangs 3 p.m. Saturday at Alexandria High School.
Both teams started the 2017 campaign with a scrimmage at Pierz. The Pioneers will face Proctor on the other side of the 3A bracket.
Both Mora and Pequot Lakes own the No. 8 ranking in the Quality Results Formula, yet neither team was ranked in the final Associated Press 3A poll. Neither team was even the No. 1 seed for its respective section tournaments. Pequot, the No. 2 seed, upset No. 1 Perham 56-22 for the Section 8-3A title and its second trip to state.
Mora downed No. 5-seed Pine City to win the Section 5-3A title and advance to its eighth state tournament and, like Pequot, its first since 2009. In fact, the last time these teams played in the state tournament, Mora eliminated Pequot Lakes 31-14 in the quarterfinals.
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Pequot Lakes vs. Mora
- What: Class 3A state quarterfinals
- When: 3 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Alexandria High School
- Who: Pequot Lakes Patriots (8-2) vs. Mora Mustangs (8-2)
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When asked about this year's matchup and what about Pequot concerns him, Mora head coach Troy Erickson ran down the list.
"Their speed. Their size and their physical play. Other than that, nothing sticks out," Erickson said sarcastically. "They have an outstanding team. And their running backs are very physical. We will have to play good team defense. We do not want to be one-on-one with those guys at any point."
Mora is led by its rushing attack of Jon Smith and Noah Foster. Smith leads the Mustangs with 1,110 yards and 10 touchdowns on 187 carries. Foster also has 10 TDs to go with 772 yards on 126 carries.
"We are a run-first team," Erickson said. "We want to establish the run game and see what can happen from there. We have the athletes to threaten teams vertically if needed. But we are a wing-T offense that wants to run. That's what our philosophy has been for a long time at this school.
"Having two backs makes us very dangerous and it's a pleasure to have both weapons at our disposal. They can't key on just one and having them both in the backfield teams have to honor that."
Mora quarterback Brycen Schritz has thrown for 1,107 yards and 13 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Erickson said two of those picks came during a blizzard. Schritz's top targets are Cal Wright (650 yards, nine TDs, 28 catches) and Foster (461 yards, five TDs, 27 catches). Wright became Mora's all-time leading receiver, while Foster became the program's all-time leader in touchdowns.
"Noah is their guy. He and Cal Wright, and their running back is pretty good," said Pequot Lakes head coach Chip Lohmiller. "Our goal is to shut Noah and Cal down. Noah plays running back. He plays wide receiver. He is very smooth and quick. He has good hands and he's a playmaker. They make a lot of big plays so we have to stop big plays. "They kind of mimic Perham with their big plays. We have to shut down the big plays. They pound you with three backs and they have a trips set (three receivers) and get you with the quick pass. They'll run, run, run and then they'll throw the play action. They try and sucker you in and then they'll hit you deep."
Mora's two losses came against Eveleth-Gilbert 12-0 and in the regular-season finale to Esko 41-38.
Pequot's two losses put the Patriots at 1-2 to start the season. Since a 32-19 loss to Perham, few teams have been hotter as the Patriots rattled off seven straight wins that included three shutouts and two other games in which their defense allowed just one score. Pequot's defense is holding teams to just 186 yards of offense and 10.4 points per game.
"This is a great class of seniors," said Lohmiller. "They're a close-knit group. They're all buddies and the leadership they have is incredible. They accept all the younger players and try to help them and teach them the ways of the program.
"I think I had seven of them starting as sophomores so they've been through so many games and so many section championships that they understand what it takes to win."
Maxx Schindel leads the Patriots with 82 tackles and owns 242 career tackles. Calvin Maske has 73 tackles and 246 for his three-year career.
The Patriots employ a balanced offense with Nathan Traut leading the rushing attack with 1,068 yards and 13 scores. Deven Psyck has 450 yards and seven TDs. Quarterback Blake Lane has rushed for 428 yards and five scores.
Lane has thrown for 975 yards and seven TDs. His top target is Austin Young, who has 24 catches for 533 yards and four scores. Traut has 12 catches for 237 yards and four TDs.
Young has collected 2,196 yards receiving in his three seasons, while Traut has rushed for 2,364 during his three-year career.
"Our philosophy, as far as how we play as a whole team, is with our defense, we want to get the ball back into our offense's hands and let them do what they do," Erickson said. "As many times I can keep it in the offense's hands that's very beneficial. That's what we have to do with Pequot. We need to limit their possessions. We do not want to turn the ball over.
"You can't stop team speed and while we have some guys with good speed, too, Pequot's team speed is what keeps defensive coordinators up late at night."