Priority No. 1
What’s the one about the Fargo South running back?
“Ghosts sit around the campfire and tell James Johannesson stories.”
Ahh, that’s it.
Except Johannesson’s no joke, and he’s standing between Minot High and its first Dakota Bowl appearance since 2006.
The second-ranked Magicians (9-1) anticipate a hefty dose of the standout junior in their Class AAA state semifinal against the two-time defending East Region champion Bruins (7-3) at 7 tonight at the Fargodome.
Johannesson, the only first-team all-state underclassman in 2012, has racked up a state-best 2,122 rushing yards on 200 carries this year. His gaudy numbers alone land him on the short list of North Dakota’s top prep athletes. Did I mention he’s a Division I hockey prospect, too?
He’ll be the prime concern for the Magicians’ top-ranked scoring defense.
“He’s explosive,” MHS coach Barry Holmen said, “so he’s capable of busting one on any particular play. He’s a scary dude and our top priority in terms of defending them.”
At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Johannesson possesses the strength to run through defenders and the speed to blow by them.
South’s offense, which is predicated on establishing Johannesson early and then creating mismatches, generates 391.4 yards per game – 299 of which come on the ground. Johannesson accounts for 212.2 of those rushing yards.
“James is just one of those special kids that doesn’t come around very often,” fourth-year South coach Troy Mattern said. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s quick. He’s got great vision.
“We build our offense around him, but it’s nice to know we have some options that can complement him as well.”
Meanwhile, MHS holds offenses to 219 total yards per game and yields 104.6 rushing. The Magicians have allowed just one back – Bismarck’s Ricardo Galindo – to break the century mark.
Something’s got to give.
Holmen isn’t concerned about surrendering yardage, as long as those yards don’t turn into the lengthy scoring plays the Bruins’ second-ranked offense depends on.
“We hope to stop them from the big-play mentality,” Holmen said. “We can afford to give (Johannesson) some yards, I think. We just gotta try to keep him out of the end zone because they score fast.”
That was wildly evident in South’s 55-49 loss to top-ranked Bismarck High on Sept. 27.
“It’s a kickoff return, it’s an 80-yard run, it’s a long pass, it’s just a collection of big play after big play,” Holmen said. “But that was early in the season and I think they’re very different now.”
Holmen meant the Bruins’ defense, which has held each opponent to two touchdowns or less since their shootout with the unbeaten Demons.
South’s 3-4 defense has slowly hit its stride as injured players have regained their health.
Junior cornerback Ty Brooks (5-9, 170) fractured a bone in his hand against Bismarck.
Brooks, also the Bruins’ leading receiver and returner, is tied with teammate Dallas Raftevold for the East Region lead with three interceptions.
The Bruins’ secondary presses receivers at the line of scrimmage with a cover-2 look over the top.
MHS senior wideout Tre Kinchen said it’s a zone coverage that leaves gaps behind the cornerbacks on the outside.
“It’s more open downfield, it’s not open short-field,” said Kinchen, who’s strung together three straight games with 100-plus yards receiving. “We just gotta get past the first guy and get into the open area.”
“Our run game will be there as well,” he added.
After being held to under 20 points in four straight games, the Magicians exploded for a 48-20 quarterfinal win over Grand Forks Red River on Friday.
South trounced West Region No. 4 seed Jamestown 41-16.
Holmen expects this matchup – the first between MHS and South since 2010 – to have a much tighter scoreline.
“I don’t expect anything but a close contest to be decided in the fourth quarter,” he said.
Ryan Holmgren covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.