Back-to-back titles in reach for Hazen

A year ago, Hazen was the new kid on the Dakota Bowl playground, there for the first time in 16 seasons and only the second time in school history.

Admittedly, the Bison were “anxious and hyper,” senior linebacker Hunter Fears said.

Now they’re 48 minutes away from claiming the state championship trophy for a second straight year, something only Velva and Harvey have done since the inception of Class A football in 1997.

Senior running back Nate Leintz might not have believed you if you told him before his junior season that the final game of his high school career would be not just for a state title, but back-to-back state titles.

“I would’ve been in awe,” Leintz said. “No words can describe it. Just a great feeling and a great opportunity for everyone.”

Top-ranked Hazen (11-0) can win its 20th consecutive game dating back to Sept. 14, 2012, if it controls the line of scrimmage against Milnor-North Sargent (9-2) in today’s 12:05 p.m. matchup. That’s something few teams – actually two: Carrington and Class AA Lisbon – have been able to accomplish.

“It’s gonna be tough with them because they’re very, very big up front and their D-ends are athletic,” Hazen coach Rick Philion said. “Their two D-tackles, one’s over 300 (pounds) and the other is sitting right at 300. And a good group of linebackers that flow very well to the ball.

“If we can maintain control of the line of scrimmage, that’s going to be a big advantage for us.”

Said Fears, who leads Hazen with 67 tackles: “It starts with our defensive line, really. If our defensive line can get a good push and get their big guys up front to double up on them, then it kind of opens up for our linebackers.”

Unlike Hazen, which blows out opponents by 33.7 points per game, the Bulldogs simply find ways to win, often in close games. Of their past six victories, three have been decided by a touchdown or less, including a 12-6 triumph in overtime last Saturday against Linton-HMB.

“They look like the real deal,” Philion said. “They got good athletes, a lot of kids that played on (Milnor’s) state championship basketball team last year, so they mentally know what it takes to win.”

The Bison boast the state’s top scoring offense and second-best defense (42.8 points for, 9.1 against per game), but M-NS has shown big-play ability during its current five-game winning streak.

“I think it’ll be a tough battle on both sides of the ball,” said the 5-foot 11, 205-pound Leintz, who’s rushed for 877 yards and 13 touchdowns on 80 carries. “Their offense is big and can make plays. And their defense is also very good at stopping the run, which is what we do a lot.”

The Bison run the ball more than a lot; they didn’t pass once in their 34-8 semifinal rout over Des Lacs-Burlington. More than 85 percent of Hazen’s offensive production comes on the ground (3,731 rushing yards, 637 passing).

In the cozy confines of the Fargodome, Philion expects a more balanced attack than against DL-B, but that won’t alter his run-first approach.

“(Connor Doll’s) capable of throwing the ball,” Philion said. “In that situation, we were very fortunate to keep plugging away.”

Doll, a 5-9, 162-pound junior quarterback, ranks third on the team in rushing yards at 775 and has completed 28 of 39 passes for 587 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception.

Senior tailback Briar Bornemann (5-7, 165) has rushed for 566 of his team-leading 974 yards in the Bison’s three playoff wins.

He churned out 284 yards in three quarters of work against DL-B, and set a Dakota Bowl record with a 286-yard performance last November against Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn.

Leintz said it’s helpful to know “what goes on with the atmosphere and all the hype surrounding the Dakota Bowl,” but after the opening kickoff, football is football.

And while Hazen’s experience and 19 straight wins indicate the Bison are favorites to win a second straight title, Fears isn’t buying it.

“Just because we won it last year doesn’t mean anything this year,” he said. “It’s a whole new year.”

Ryan Holmgren covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.