By PATRICK SLACK
Upsala-Swanville Area (USA) didn’t have to look far back to know that being a top seed doesn’t make a team safe in the section semifinals.
Only a year ago, the Patriots went on the road as the fourth seed and knocked off No. 1 Crosby-Ironton.
Moving back to this year, though, No. 4 Pine River-Backus had one gaping piece missing that last year’s, and more importantly, this year’s top-seeded USA team possessed: Mitch Lange.
The senior freight train running back and linebacker turned in perhaps the greatest performance of his already spectacular career, gashing the visiting Tigers for 274 yards and four touchdowns offensively, while making 20 tackles to lead the Patriots to a 35-20 victory, Oct. 26.
“How many adjectives can you add? When you come into games like this you want your big players to step up and make big plays. He’s the heartbeat of what we do,” USA head coach Jay Loven said.
The win pushed USA into the section championship game against sixth-seeded Browerville, which is scheduled to be played at the Fargodome, Friday.
USA’s defense gave its offense ample opportunities to score in the first half, as the Patriots started six drives inside the Tigers’ 40-yard line, allowing them to break an early 14-14 tie and take a 28-14 lead into halftime.
“Obviously it’s really nice when you can get a short field, it makes the play-calling so much easier when you start in four-down territory,” Loven said.
“All year we’ve had a bend but don’t break defense,” he said. “We give up some yards, but it seems like when it comes crunch time, the kids step up and make plays for us. They did get some plays on us, but all in all I felt like we did what we needed to do to stop what they like to do.”
Pine River-Backus pulled within a score at 28-20 with 10:37 remaining in the fourth quarter, but Lange sealed the win with his final touchdown with 7:45 to play.
Junior Jordan Sales recorded USA’s other touchdown, hauling in a 13-yard pass from junior Tyler Evans that gave the Patriots the lead for good in the second quarter.
Lange also had a fumble recovery and ran in a pair of two-point conversions.
Sophomore Justin Cichon made seven solo stops and sophomore Carter Loven and Evans intercepted passes.
“We really tried to hit home that when you get to this point the number in front of your name doesn’t mean anything,” coach Loven said.
When the Patriots started the year with 16 of 22 starting spots vacant following last year’s decent playoff run, the team hoped to be in a position to make a similar run, but didn’t necessarily expect to.
“It’s obviously a goal, but honestly, no,” coach Loven said. “We thought we could be a little better than .500, but to say we’d be back in the section finals would’ve been a little egotistical. It’s a thrill.
“The kids saw what it took last year to get there and they worked their tails off to get to this point,” he said. “The mission isn’t done yet. We aren’t happy with just getting back there. Now we’re kind of expected to win as the No. 1 seed. We have to go out there and prove it.”
The winner between USA and Browerville will advance to the state quarterfinals to play against the winner of the Section 8A title game between defending state champion Mahnomen and Red Lake County.
That game will be played at Bemidji State University, Saturday, No. 9 at 3 p.m.
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