The Thursday morning sunrise was a spectacular one, with hints of maroon and orange, Canistota/Freeman's team colors, streaking across the eastern skyline. It was the perfect backdrop for the team's 7 a.m. departure from Freeman to Vermillion to play in the 10 a.m. Class 9A championship game. It also hinted at something else — that maybe something special was in store for the Pride.
In fact, it was.
In just its second year playing as the Pride, Canistota/Freeman ran away with the state championship thanks to a dominating 46-14 win over Howard at the DakotaDome. The Nov. 8 victory was a landmark one for a cooperative born out of two rich football traditions: Freeman, playing as the Flyers, won five titles while Canistota, playing as the Hawks, won four.
"This generates that atmosphere and that idea of what it takes to be a champion," head coach James Strang told reporters shortly after his team accepted the 9A championship trophy, and as the players gathered with fans near the north end zone of the DakotaDome. "Success breeds success, and I hope that pays off here as the co-op continues and as these two programs look to build a legacy together."
"We've got great traditions on both sides," said Canistota senior quarterback Trey Ortman, who completed 8-of-9 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns, ran for another score and was named the game's Joe Robby MVP. "We've created a new tradition as a co-op, so this is amazing."
The Pride dominated a championship game that many thought would be closer. Howard, the Class 9A No. 6 seed, had upset both Warner and Britton-Hecla to earn its place in the Dome and came in playing its best football of the season.
"We knew it was going to be a battle coming in," said junior Bailey Sage. "We were playing in a different environment; we knew it was going to be loud. Warm. But we were prepared for this game. I think we were more prepared for this one than any other one. Howard's a tough opponent, but we came out and executed, got off to a good start and kept our foot on the gas pedal."
Indeed, No. 4 Canistota/Freeman wasted little time establishing itself as a team to be reckoned with, needing just six plays to go 60 yards for the game's first score. It came on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Ortman to Freeman senior Braxton Schmidt, who spent much of the regular season sidelined with a separated shoulder.
"It felt really good; it was a great way start the game," Schmidt said. "It got us in a good mood and amped things up a little bit."
"It was a weight lifted off our shoulders," Freeman junior Micah Swensen said of that touchdown on the game's opening drive. "Felt good to get that first score right away."
But the Tigers answered with a 62-yard drive of their own that saw them grind it out using the running game. They converted on a fourth down in Pride territory before finding the end zone on a 5-yard touchdown run by Zach Pardy midway through the first quarter. That made it an 8-6 game, but Canistota/Freeman held Howard on the two-point conversion attempt and maintained a lead that would only grow when Ortman found younger brother Tyce for a 50-yard touchdown reception on the first play of the second quarter.
"That was extremely important," Strang said. "In the world of high school football, rallies come and go and you have to be playing at a high level all the time, otherwise you can get behind and have to dig your way out. When we've gotten up early, we've been successful throughout the season, so we knew that's what we had to do."
Leading 16-6, the Pride forced Howard into a punt on its next possession and found the end zone again on a 6-yard quarterback keeper with 4:33 to play in the half. The two-point conversion was good again and Canistota/Freeman took a commanding 24-6 lead into the half.
The Pride's success against Howard in that first half is indicative of both the talent and resilience of the team. Twice they responded to adversity — once by answering Howard's scoring drive in the first quarter and a second time in the second period, when penalties had them facing a third-and-goal from the Tigers' 19. But a 13-yard pass play put them at the six and set up a fourth-and-goal that Ortman would convert on the quarterback keeper.
"When the season started, people around the state didn't really picture us as being a powerhouse team," Schmidt said. "All through that first week of practice, that was kind of the motivation. We wanted to prove people wrong. As we got closer to the playoffs, it came into perspective how good we really were. I guess hard work works."
Howard got the ball to start the third quarter but was quickly forced into a three-and-out that set up the Pride's next touchdown. After Canistota/Freeman converted on a fourth-and-two deep in Tigers' territory, Austin Thu scored his first touchdown of the game from 18 yards out to make it 32-6.
The Tigers made it 32-14 late in the third period, but rushing touchdowns from Bailey Sage and Isiah Robertson in the fourth quarter put a lid on the win, and all that was left for Canistota/Freeman to do was celebrate.
"I'm just so excited and happy," said Thu, who led the ground game with 88 yards on 17 carries. "We were the underdogs all season, and to come in and win the championship, there are no words to describe it."
"It's once in a lifetime, that's for sure," Swensen said of the feeling afterward. "When I was little and in junior high, I didn't think I would have this opportunity, so I'm really glad the co-op worked out for us."
The Pride ran for 286 yards and passed for 165 in Thursday's win and held Howard to just 162 yards of total offense. In addition to Thu's game-high 88 yards on the ground, Sage ran for 66. Tyce Ortman had 94 yards receiving on three catches and Schmidt caught four passes for 55 yards. The game saw only one turnover — an interception thrown by Howard late in the fourth quarter.
As a group
As the celebration continued on the DakotaDome field into the early afternoon hours of Thursday, players and coaches both talked about how it was that this unlikely season unfolded in such a positive way.
"With the athletes we have out there from both schools — the toughness and the work ethic — anything is possible," said Strang. "It's a great mesh of kids and a great working group of kids who are always looking to be their best and do their best all the time."
"I'm just really proud of the way we came together as a team this season," said Sage. "Even after that loss to Garretson going into the playoffs, we were able to rally together and be a great team, not just one or two players."
"When you're playing for something it makes you work a lot harder, and that's what we did," said Schmidt, who admits it was tough watching much of the season from the sidelines with that shoulder injury. "I just kept telling myself I needed to wait a little bit longer and it would be worth it in the end, and it was."
And Schmidt, who was also a state champion last spring when he and the Flyers took home the Class B state track championship, was emotional when asked what he will remember most about the season.
"It's just the memories," he said. "I'm going to miss sports like crazy when I graduate. It's been a big part of my life, and to see success through the hard work, it means a lot."
For Strang, he'll remember "the mindset, the maturity that this team had throughout the course of the year. They came together really well as a group, they built on everything we started with, and each week they grew and they grew some more. And that's an amazing thing to see."
Canistota/Freeman will lose five seniors from this year's state-championship team: Tristan Pierce (who was named the game's defensive lineman), Shay Saarie, Jared Tieszen, Schmidt and Thu. But the Ortman brothers, Sage and Swensen and dangerous wide receiver Collin Helma are among the 14 sophomores and juniors listed on this year's roster, and there are six freshmen behind them.
"You can't just rest on this championship," Strang said. "These younger kids need to understand what it takes to be a champion and to continue to be champions. Success breeds success and that's what we hope to do."