By PATRICK SLACK
The 2012 football season has been on the minds of Upsala-Swanville Area (USA) for several years now.
With a deep and athletic senior class, players and coaches alike knew something special could happen if they stuck together.
“When we had them as freshmen we talked about it,” USA head coach Jay Loven said. “We could see the talent and the numbers this group had, and it was together. None of them quit. We could see a lot of potential and that we were kind of going to have a window to make some noise.”
Enter Mitch Lange.
The bruising junior running back and linebacker carried the load on offense while flying from sideline to sideline making tackles on defense, leading the Patriots to their best finish in program history.
Put together, USA had an all-around weapon no one in the area would prove able to match.
“There are three things in Mitch,” Loven said. “First of all, he’s terribly talented. And then, he’s as coachable of a kid as I’ve coached in 20 years. He’ll do absolutely anything that’s asked of him. You could ask him to play on the line and he wouldn’t bat an eyelash.”
“Third, he works,” he said. “In the weight room, in conditioning drills he’s out in front every time. I call him a ‘freak of nature.’ He’s got three qualities most kids can’t put together.”
Lange started the season fast, leading USA to a 33-15 win over New York Mills in the opener with 121 rushing yards and two touchdowns on offense, along with nine tackles, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery on defense.
That set up a showdown with Browerville, winners of the previous three meetings against the Patriots.
“That was probably my favorite game this year,” Lange said. “It was the most physical game I’ve ever played in. It was awesome.”
Browerville held USA in check early, taking an 8-0 lead into halftime and a 15-14 edge into the fourth quarter.
But eventually Lange and the Patriots wore the Tigers down, as Lange broke free for a 45-yard touchdown run in the fourth to give USA a 22-15 win and exact revenge.
“It gave our kids so much confidence,” Loven said. “We really hadn’t beaten any ‘quality’ teams before then.”
“The game was a battle throughout,” he said. “It showed we can play with the elite teams. It was a huge victory for us and it was a big reason we had the success we did.”
An easy 41-6 rout over United North Central came next to push USA’s record to 3-0, setting up a clash with unbeaten and then fifth-ranked Barnesville, which had defeated the Patriots 50-6 the year before.
However, after taking down Browerville, USA was ready.
“They were looking past us for sure,” Lange said. “They were predicting us to lose by a big margin. We definitely wanted to show them up.”
USA overcame an early safety to go ahead 6-2, but Barnesville scored 20 unanswered to move ahead 22-6. USA closed within one possession at 22-14 in the final minute, but couldn’t recover an onside kick to get one final chance to even the score.
“We definitely had mistakes in that game that hurt us pretty bad,” Lange said. “Take away the mistakes and it would’ve been an even closer game.”
“Even during the week of practice leading up to it there was a different feel,” Loven said. “There was no fear factor. If we had played a better game I think we could’ve beaten them.”
Nonetheless, the drastically closer margin of defeat against Barnesville from last season further demonstrated how far the team had come in a short amount of time.
The next week, USA shut out Long Prairie-Grey Eagle 31-0, then avenged another loss from the previous season against Osakis, 37-14.
Following a 48-6 demolition of Wadena-Deer Creek, USA had the opportunity to close the regular season with a 7-1 record in its finale against Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg (KMS).
And while Lange had already put together five multi-touchdown and 100-plus-yard games heading in, he was about to put those outings to shame.
“The line had an awesome game,” Lange said. “I didn’t have to hit anybody. I just ran through the holes they opened.”
“It was awesome running behind them all year,” he said. “I owe it all to these guys and my fullback. They were the best. The blocks they made got me upfield and to the outside. It was definitely them. They made it all happen.”
“They’re very intelligent, not only on the football field, but in the classroom,” Loven said. “They could figure out things before we had the chance to tell them.
“They work hard and are smart, selfless kids, which you have to be to play on the line,” he said. “It’s just a good, athletic group of kids that made things better for our backs.”
“Our offensive line was doing tremendous work up front opening seams and once Mitch gets the seam he’s going to be hard to catch,” he said. “But there was a little bit more fire in his eyes. You could just see something different. You just knew something was going to happen. He ran like a man possessed.”
Six Lange rushing touchdowns and 252 yards later, USA had polished off KMS 50-15, heading into the postseason as one of four 7-1 teams in Section 6AA.
On to the Dome
Despite the strong record, USA wound up receiving the fourth seed, and after topping Osakis once again in the section quarterfinals, met up with top-seeded Crosby-Ironton with a trip to the Fargodome on the line.
“They were predicting us to lose big again,” Lange said. “No one was giving us credit. We just wanted to prove ourselves, went out there and played our hardest.”
Credit came quickly after the opening whistle, as Lange stripped the ball free from Crosby-Ironton’s quarterback on the third play of the game, returning the fumble 25 yards for a score to spark a runaway 45-14 triumph.
“It just got the team going,” Lange said. “We got into the game and from there on we just started pounding them. We hit them harder than they’ve been hit all year.”
“It set the tone,” Loven said. “Our whole game plan was we thought we could outphysical them. By Mitch taking that ball away on the third play of the game, it just sent the message even more that if you’re going to play with us, you better be ready to strap it on. It was a huge turning point in the game.”
USA advanced to take on Holdingford in the section finals, only the second trip to the Fargodome ever for the Patriots, but two key scores before and after halftime helped lead the Huskers to a 34-0 win.
“I think it would’ve been a lot closer without those scores,” Lange said. “They are definitely a good team, almost beating BOLD at state.”
“We had big goals set for this year before the season, to make it to the Fargodome and hopefully on to state,” he said. “We fell short there, but we had a good year.”
After serving as a backup last fall, Lange stepped into the primary running back role this season, running for 1,448 yards and 24 touchdowns despite USA regularly rotating him out on alternate series to keep him fresh.
“When you have a back like Mitch, you love to give him the ball every time,” Loven said. “But you realize how valuable he is on the defensive side and that he’s going to take a pounding every time he carries the ball, it’s tough on his body.”
“The guys he’s splitting time with are very quality backs too,” he said. “Austin Mollner was our leading rusher last year. We have some quality kids that can back him up so Mitch takes less hits.”
“I didn’t really like getting a break, because once you sit out a while you just get stiff,” Lange said. “Austin is an outstanding runner so you’ve got to give him the ball. If you’re tired or not, you’ve just got to do it. It was nice to get a breather though.”
That breather helped Lange on defense as well, where he racked up 138 tackles, 104 of which were solo stops.
Offense or defense?
So where does Lange make the biggest impact, offense or defense?
“Up until this past year, no question it was on defense,” Loven said. “He’s just an absolute standout on defense. This year, 1,400 rushing yards … it’s pretty hard to scoff at that too.”
“The kid is a great athlete,” he said. “The humility he carries, he never checked the book, never asked us how many yards he had. He didn’t care. He just cared about winning. I’ve never coached a kid more humble. He’s just got the whole package.”
As for Lange, he doesn’t care where he’s playing, as long as there’s plenty of contact.
“Just a big hit, either after a big hard run or a tackle, any solid hit. I love contact. That’s probably my favorite part about football.”
Lange, the third-ranked wrestler in the state in Class A at 160 pounds entering the winter season, credits that sport with helping his tackling.
“Wrestling, for sure,” Lange said. “That is for sure the reason why.”
“No question, when we started him as a freshman, just watching him tackle, it wouldn’t take long to figure out he was a wrestler,” Loven said. “It’s nice to have wrestlers on a football team. They are great in hand-to-hand combat and one-on-one situations. They have that wrestler’s mentality.”
“When Mitch gets a hand on a running back, chances are they aren’t going to be going very far,” he said. “Let’s just say he’s a very valuable player. On top of that he’s a very, very nice kid. You don’t find that in all players.”
MC Record’s Player of the Year, game-by-game
8/30: USA 33, New York Mills 15
17 carries, 121 yards, 2 touchdowns
7 solo tck, 2 asts, sack, interception, fum. rec.
9/7: USA 22, Browerville 15
20 carries, 139 yards, 2 touchdowns
7 solo tackles, 6 assists, interception
9/14: USA 41, United North Central 6
15 carries, 135 yards, 2 touchdowns
6 solo tackles, 2 assists, 1 sack
9/21: Barnesville 22, USA 14
17 carries, 81 yards
12 solo tackles, 1 assist, fumble recovery
9/28: USA 31, Long Prairie-Grey Eagle 0
16 carries, 141 yards, 2 touchdowns
10 solo tackles
10/5: USA 37, Osakis 14
17 carries, 81 yards, 1 touchdown
14 solo tackles, 7 assists, fumble recovery
10/12: USA 48, Wadena-Deer Creek 6
33 carries, 159 yards, 3 touchdowns
9 solo tackles, 3 assists, interception, fum. rec.
10/17: USA 50, Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg 15
16 carries, 252 yards, 6 touchdowns
6 solo tackles, 4 assists
10/23: USA 20, Osakis 0
22 carries, 127 yards, 2 touchdowns
16 solo tackles, 2 assists
10/27: USA 45, Crosby-Ironton 14
25 carries, 164 yards, 4 touchdowns
10 solo tackles, 3 assists, sack, fum. rec., def. TD
11/2: Holdingford 34, USA 0
15 carries, 48 yards
7 solo tackles, 4 assists
Rushing yards: 1,448
Yards per carry/game: 6.8/131.6
Rushing touchdowns: 24
Receiving yards: 21
Solo tackles: 104
Assisted tackles: 34
Fumble recoveries: 5