BY JEREMY WALTNER | COURIER EDITOR & PUBLISHER
The Tigers delivered the first blow.
But the Pride won the fight — and the night.
Facing off in what many believed should and would be the Class 9A championship game, fourth-seeded Canistota/Freeman claimed a 12-7 win over top-seed Howard in the semifinal round of the playoffs in Howard Friday night, Nov. 6. The Pride outscored the Tigers 12-0 after giving up a touchdown on Howard’s first possession of the game, and multiple defensive stands in the second, third and fourth quarters ensured the nail-biter of a win.
Canistota/Freeman (10-1) will face Warner (10-0) for what would be their third-straight state championship at the DakotaDome in Vermillion next Thursday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m.
“I remember when we won that first state championship against Howard, me and the kids in my class were like, ‘Man, we’ve got to try and do this again next year,’” said senior quarterback Tyce Ortman, one of the most prolific playmakers in South Dakota who hopes to walk on at South Dakota State University after graduating from Canistota. “And then the following year we realized we could do it again, so to have this opportunity to do it a third time — it’s unbelievable.”
THE HOWARD GAME
Pride fans had cause for concern early on against an undefeated and dangerous Howard team Friday night. The Pride were stopped near midfield on downs after failing to convert a fourth-and-5 on the first possession of the game and the Tigers responded by efficiently and effectively pounding the ball downfield and into scoring position. And when running back Riley Genzlinger punched it in from five yards out with 3:13 left to play in the first quarter — followed by a successful point after kick by John Callies — the two-time defending champions found themselves playing from behind in the biggest game of the season.
“The way that started out, that opening drive they had, man, I was sitting there scratching my head,” said Pride head coach James Strang. “I think we got excited, we got out of touch a little bit and we lost our way a little bit. We bent, but we didn’t give it up.”
Indeed, on Canistota/Freeman’s next possession it responded to what could have been a dangerous situation. Make no mistake about it — the Pride did not want to fall behind by two scores against an undefeated Howard team that gave up an average of 7.2 points per game this season. So when quick-footed senior running back Isiah Robertson found the corner and scampered 17 yards for a touchdown with 9:11 left in the second period, a sense of relief washed over Canistota/Freeman’s side of the field. But the Tigers stopped quarterback Tyce Ortman on what was seen at the time as a critical two-point conversion attempt, and the Pride remained on the wrong side of a 7-6 score.
As Strang said afterward, “It was pins and needles the whole time.”
What followed, though, was a momentum shift that slightly favored the Pride thanks largely to a defensive stand on the Tigers’ second possession of the game. Defending a fourth-and-2 midway through the second period, Canistota/Freeman stopped Howard in its tracks for a key change of possession and then converted on a fourth-and-2 and then a fourth-and-4 — both times by inches — and moved into the red zone as the first half clock ticked away.
But faced with yet another fourth down situation with only seconds remaining in the half — this time a fourth-and-4 from the Tigers 5-yard-line — a pass from Ortman to tight end Logan Katzer was disrupted by a Howard defender and the Pride were stopped short. Howard’s senior quarterback Tisyn Spader took a knee on the next snap and the game went into halftime with the Tigers clinging to a 7-6 lead.
Strang said afterward the struggles of the first half by both teams was a product of outstanding defenses at work and a testament to how well the game was being played, even though both teams were unable to execute offensively as they had hoped.
“We did a lot of things tonight that I know we’ll look back on and say, oof, but when you struggle up and down the field like that, it’s a testament to great football,” said Strang. “Coach (Pat) Ruml and the seniors and the young talent that’s on that Howard Tigers team, they tagged us and there’s a reason why. This game could go back and forth week to week. Just amazing.”
Indeed, by halftime, those expecting to see a hard-nosed game of football were not disappointed. Not only was the score as close as it could be, the opening two quarters were filled with multiple third- and fourth-down conversation attempts that were both successful and not, a big touchdown from both sides, and clean play. There was but one penalty — a face mask called on the Pride — and no turnovers.
All of that set the table for a dramatic second half. Here’s what happened.
Canistota/Freeman’s defense posted another impressive stand on Howard’s opening drive of the second half, but not before Robertson, playing at defensive back, suffered an ankle injury and had to be helped off the field. Strang said on Saturday that he was questionable, but not necessarily out, for Thursday’s championship game.
A few plays later, the Tigers turned the ball over on downs after a fake punt on fourth-and-4 resulted in an incomplete pass, but the Pride couldn’t advance the ball on their ensuing possession, and senior Collin Helma was forced to punt for the first time all game.
Howard once again found itself in a position to extend its lead but, once again, Canistota/Freeman’s defense rose to the occasion and got another stop, this time stuffing the Tigers on a fourth-and-2. For the game, Howard was 0-for-4 on fourth down conversion attempts while the Pride were 4-for-6. That’s perhaps the stat of the game.
And then this happened.
On their second possession of the second half and fifth possession of the game, Ortman kept the ball and found an escape to the outside before turning on the burners and taking it home. The 36-yard touchdown run gave Canistota/Freeman a 12-7 lead with 2:01 left in the third quarter, but the Tigers once again kept Ortman out of the end zone on the two-point conversation attempt and it remained a 12-7 game. Quick math showed that Howard would regain the lead with another touchdown.
It didn’t happen, although twice it looked like it might.
With Howard driving near midfield early in the fourth quarter and facing a second-and-6, the Tigers were whistled for their only penalty of the game — a false start that moved them into a second-and-11 situation. On the next snap, senior Cole Papendick got through Howard’s offensive line for a quarterback sack that put Howard into a third-and-long — and then fourth-and-long — situation and ensuing punt.
Canistota/Freeman took over with 9:30 left in the game and successfully ran the clock, converting twice on fourth down to maintain possession before the Tigers finally forced the Pride into fourth-and-5 and their second punt of the night. Howard regained possession for the last time from their own 38-yard-line with 2:12 to play and just one timeout left.
And down the field they marched, converting two first downs with significant gains around the outside and well into Pride territory, but — once again — Canistota/Freeman’s defense stepped up. They held the Tigers on first, second and third down and, just like that, it was fourth-and-8 from the 27. Howard, facing a do or die play, used its third and final timeout with 1:00 left in the game. Strang said he told his team during the timeout about position and responsibilities.
“Figured they would try and connect with their big tight end on our side, so I made sure we had layered guys keeping him from getting vertical,” said the coach. “Nothing fancy, just fundamental football.”
The Pride’s line flushed Tisyn Spader out of the pocket and gave chase until he was forced to throw the ball down the sideline. Canistota/Freeman defenders were there to knock down the would-be first down completion and the Pride held once again, this time with the game — and quite possibly the 9A championship — on the line.
With the Tigers out of timeouts, Ortman was able to take a knee twice and the clocked ticked down to zero.
The Pride won the game thanks largely their ability to contain a Howard offense that averaged just over 48 points per game during the regular season and had 58 points in its quarterfinal win over Castlewood. Ten players recorded at least one solo tackle with Logan Katzer leading the way with nine; Helma had six and Tieszen and Papendick each had five.
“Tremendous defensive effort; so many kids out there showed up and did things that were commendable,” said Strang, noting the Tigers’ own impressive defensive effort that held the Pride to just 186 yards of total offense. “We only scored 12 points and had a whole lot of ideas about how to get more. Hats off to the Howard Tigers for keeping us down.”
Of those 186 yards, all but nine came from Ortman and Robertson, who ran for 111 and 66 yards, respectively. The Pride were skunked on passing yards, with Ortman going 0-for-3.
Howard actually held the edge on total yards with 192, but it was the third- and fourth-down conversions that gave Canistota/Freeman the edge in offensive production, and likely the game. In addition to their 66.7% fourth-down conversion success, the Pride were also 4-of-12 on third down attempts while the Tigers were 5-of-14 on both for 36%.
Other stats show just how close the game was. Each team ran 49 plays with Canistota/Freeman averaging 3.8 yards per play to Howard’s 3.9. The Pride ran the ball 46 times to the Tigers’ 41, had 12 first downs to Howard’s 13 and each team was penalized once for five yards. Canistota/Freeman held the advantage in time of possession, holding the ball for 25:59. The Tigers possessed it 20:16.
The Pride now turn their attention to Warner and what would be their third-straight 9-man title in four years as a cooperative.
“It’s going to be another defensive battle,” said Ortman. “Defense is key for us; we’ve just got to show up.”
“Three in a row — that what you dream of,” said Freeman senior Clayton Smith, a key player on the line who said the entire team was razor-sharp in its focus against Howard. “It was all or nothing — 100%.”
Strang said a return trip to the state championship game was front-of-mind.
“We started the playoffs with that notion; we actually started talking about it after we lost to Howard (in Week 3); what did we have to do to get back after it?” Strang said. “It just goes to show you what great people can do when they wrap their head around something and put their mind to it. Just a tremendous effort all around.”
NOTES FROM HOWARD
- The rivalry between Canistota/Freeman and Howard is a friendly one, with both teams sharing respect for the other, according to the coaching staff. And stakes have been high — and the games close — in recent years. In 2017, the No. 4 Tigers came from behind to take out No. 1 Canistota/Freeman 27-26 in a game that had to be suspended, and then finished the following morning, because of weather. The Pride got revenge the following season, though, defeating Howard 46-14 for their first state championship and then beat the Tigers 22-0 during the 2019 regular season. Howard, of course, clipped the Pride 16-14 on Sept. 11 to leapfrog them to the top spot in the 9A standings and preventing them from playing for that coveted and elusive Cornbelt Conference championship, setting up last week’s semifinal showdown.
- It’s hard to argue that Canistota/Freeman and Howard have been the top two teams all season. Warner and Wall, who were both undefeated and played in the other semifinal last Friday, didn’t post the same kind of point differential throughout the season, and the South Dakota Prep Football Media Poll had the Pride and the Tigers in the top two spots all season long; the Pride held the top position in the preseason poll and throughout the first four weeks before swapping spots with the Tigers.
- In addition to the loss of Robertson to injury Friday night, senior running back Blake Anderson was also experiencing discomfort during the game and afterward was experiencing extreme muscular pain in his lower back. Strang said Saturday was a better day for Anderson after visiting a chiropractor and he is expected to play against Warner.
- Tyce Ortman knows the value of his coaching staff, which, in addition to Strang, includes offensive coordinator Brad Struck and assistants Curtis Sage, Chris Maske, Eric Tieszen, Mitch Johnson and Dan Tieszen. “They spend hours and hours preparing and do a great job of breaking it down for us,” said Ortman. “All we have to do is play.” Said Strang: “We’ve got a lot of eyes out there and a lot of people who have great experience coaching the game of football. They do a great job and communicate with each other well.”
- As was the case in Brookings last year, the Pride will be the lower seed heading into Thursday's championship and will wear their white jerseys.
Here are all the 2020 South Dakota high school football championship games.
Thursday, Nov. 12
Class 9AA, 11 a.m.: No. 2 Hamlin (11-0) vs. No. 4 Platte-Geddes (11-0)
Class B, 3 p.m.: No. 3 Wolsey-Wessington (9-1) vs. No. 5 Dell Rapids St. Mary (7-2)
Class 9A, 7 p.m.: No. 3 Warner (10-0) vs. No. 4 Canistota-Freeman (10-1)
Friday, Nov. 13
Class 11B, 2 p.m.: No. 1 Winner (10-0) vs. No. 2 Bridgewater-Emery (11-0)
Class 11AA, 7 p.m.: No. 1 Brookings (11-0) vs. No. 3 Pierre T.F. Riggs (8-2)
Saturday, Nov. 14
Class 11A, 2 p.m.: No. 1 Tea Area (10-0) vs. No. 2 Canton (8-2)
Class 11AAA, 7 p.m.: No. 2 Brandon Valley (8-1) vs. No. 5 Harrisburg (7-3)