As Chatfield football team goes for back-to-back state titles, legacy is also on the line

Nov. 30—CHATFIELD — Don't ask Chatfield 16th-year football coach Jeff Johnson if this is the best team he's coached.

Or, at least wait until late Friday afternoon. By that time the Gophers will know if they are back-to-back state champions. Repeat and it just might land them on the top of Johnson's coaching mantle.

What's not up for debate is how much fun this winning ride has been for all associated with Gophers football. No. 1-ranked Chatfield is on a 25-game winning streak as it enters its 1 p.m. Class AA championship game Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium against No. 3 Barnesville.

"This has been a blast," said Johnson, whose team beat West Central Area/Ashby 14-13 in last year's Prep Bowl. "Winning, of course, is a lot more fun than losing. You win 25 in a row and that means you've had a great group of kids to work with. Kids who have a lot of talent. They allow you to go above and beyond in certain areas offensively and defensively. It allows you to be more creative."

Ability and plenty of "want-to" have put Chatfield in this position.

This summer the Gophers players trained together five days per week, weights being lifted by 6 a.m. three of those days, sprints and agility work done the other two. The players even went as far as to give each other "consequences" for those who'd miss sessions.

It was all in good fun. But it worked.

"People who missed knew they'd have 25 burpees to do," Chatfield senior tight end/linebacker Drew O'Connor said. "We'd have people watching to see who missed. But we made it fun. The weight room is where our routine was. Everyone was having fun in there. We made it fun and we knew we were getting better."

There are 23 seniors on this Chatfield team, including three student managers. Most of them were on the Gophers varsity a year ago when they won it all, the school's fifth state football title (1994, 1995, 1996, 2013 the others).

There were doubts about what this 2022 edition could accomplish. That was despite being loaded at the skill positions, including having arguably the top Class AA player in the state, dynamic running quarterback Sam Backer.

The worry was the offensive and defensive lines. The Gophers graduated some large and big-time players there last spring. Just two linemen returned, seniors Isaac Stevens and Michael Greiner.

The No. 1 concern was how effectively Chatfield could replace center Caden Nolte, one of the top offensive linemen in southeastern Minnesota last season and a monster. Taking his place was junior Nathan Allen, who at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, is clearly not a monster.

"Nolte is about twice Nathan's size, so center was our biggest question," said Johnson, whose offensive line is rounded out by new starters Blake Thompson (senior) and sophomore Ethan Cole. "But in our two-a-day practices, he was spot-on with his (shot-gun) snaps. And though he is undersized, he is tough and gritty and is a dedicated weight trainer. He's really held his own, doing it against much bigger defensive linemen. Nathan is going to have his hands full again against Barnesville. But if he can hold his own again, I like our chances."

The Gophers have a recent history with Barnesville. The teams met in last year's state semifinals, Chatfield eking out a 22-18 win. This 2022 version of the Trojans seems even better. They enter the championship game a perfect 12-0 and fresh off a dominant 41-12 victory against Jackson County Central in the semifinals.

Statistically, Barnesville has the best defense in Class AA. It's allowed just four points per game and has recorded six shutouts.

"They are big and strong and physical," Johnson said. "And they run their misdirection (run-heavy) offense as well as anyone in the state. Their backs are good runners and linemen (Just Krueger, 5-10, 265; and Jonathan Robideau, 6-1, 220) are great two-way players, Plus, they have two tight ends, one of them 275 pounds and the other 225 and they get a really good push. We're going to have to be in attack mode to stop them."

As big, strong and physical as Barnesville is up front, Johnson believes his team has one clear advantage. That is the Gophers' speed and quickness. Chatfield is full of athleticism in both their lines as well as everywhere else.

That has gotten them to where they are right now, at 12-0 and ranked No. 1.

"I think our advantage is going to be our team speed again," Johnson said. "We have to be faster than them; that is what we've been banking on all year. We need to bank on it again."