The Patriots knew they would have a deep senior class.
Still, even though no one was circling 2013 on the calendar as the year USA would break through and reach the state tournament for the first time in program history, the herculean efforts of Lange helped make the unexpected a reality this fall as the Patriots went 10-2 and won the Section 6A championship.
“I wanted us to win and be a successful football team,” Lange said. I never would have thought it would end in a state tournament appearance. After graduating such a strong senior class, I didn’t think it was possible.
“We all wanted to make the trip back to the Fargodome,” he said. “We all knew with losing most of the starting team from last year, it would take a lot of work.” The work started with the Patriots needing to fill all but six of 22 starting positions. Fortunately, Lange was manning two of those spots as the team’s incumbent running back and middle linebacker, helping show the ropes to a team that started the year with a group of newcomers high on talent but short on experience.
Quick start, rivalry renewed
Any evidence of rookie nerves were hard to find early on, as USA waxed its first five opponents by at least 20 points apiece.
After a midseason hiccup to Class AA power Barnesville, the Patriots bounced back with a rain-soaked win over United North Central leading into a regular-season ending showdown with Royalton.
Following a two-year hiatus due to conference realignment, the cross-county rivalry resumed with the Morrison County Milkjug traveling trophy on the line for the first time.
For his part, Lange carried the ball 35 times for 156 yards and two touchdowns and delivered a key interception return for a score at the end of the first half as USA put together a last-minute 24-21 victory.
“It was a great feeling,” Lange said. “I remember as a freshman beating Royalton with a last-minute touchdown pass, similar to our game this year. The game was intense. It is always a close game and with the milk jug on the line it really adds excitement.”
Journey to state
USA opened the postseason with a bit of a sluggish start, struggling early before eventually putting away West Central Area in the Section 6A quarterfinals, then doing the same against Pine River-Backus in the semifinals.
That earned the Patriots a return trip to the Fargodome to play for a section title in a rematch with Browerville.
There was little drama in the contest – not that USA minded – as the Patriots stormed to a 27-0 lead en route to a 35-8 rout.
“We wanted to win. ‘This is our game,’ coach Jay (Loven) said. We wanted to go home as the first state participants in Patriot history,” Lange said. “I always wanted to make it to state for football. Waiting on the sidelines for a whole quarter to hold up that trophy seemed to take forever. I was so pumped.”
A battle with the champs
USA couldn’t unseat defending state champion Mahnomen, winners of 25 games in a row and 38 of 39 going in, but equipped themselves quite well, staying within two points entering the fourth quarter in a 28-12 defeat.
“After falling just short of Mahnomen and giving them their toughest battle on the season, it showed we were for real,” Lange said. “We were a solid team and deserved to be playing with the top teams.
“It was cold. It was amazing to be a part of the state tournament. We had so many loud fans, I could barely hear the call from the sidelines,” he said. “It was a great experience. It was a ton of fun.”
One of a kind
Naturally gifted to be sure, Lange truly separated himself from the pack with an immense work ethic, allowing him to achieve unparalleled consistency.
Lange handled the ball at least 22 times in all 12 games this fall, reaching 100+ in all but one contest, which he finished with 95.
All put together, Lange carried the ball 323 times for 2,025 yards and 24 touchdowns averaging 6.27 yards per carry.
It was the same story on the other side of the ball, with Lange posting at least nine tackles in every game of the year, including a season-high 22 with 15 solo stops against Mahnomen, to finish with 100 solo tackles, 66 assists and 2.5 sacks.
“It’s a real treat when you get a kid like Mitch,” Loven said. “Not only is he talented, but his work ethic is one I haven’t coached in 20 years.
“By linebacker standards he’s a little undersized, but his wrestling skills really helped, especially when it came to his balance offensively and his tackling ability,” Loven said. “When he got ahold of somebody, they usually didn’t get away from him.”
Quick to credit those opening up real estate in front of him, Lange was able to run the ball at peak efficiency despite an offensive line that only had one returning starter.
“We definitely had a small line and most without much varsity experience, but as the season went along I became very comfortable behind them,” Lange said. “They did a great job blocking up front. I owe it to them. They hold the team together.”
Hold it together, along with Lange. When considering how far this team could have gone without Lange, Loven hedges a bit, unsure of what would have happened had the Patriots’ backbone been removed.
“It’s hard to say,” Loven said. “I think we would have had an awfully good team, but his leadership qualities are what kind of what really tipped us over the edge. The kids coming up filling roles saw him and how he worked and that kind of rubbed off. He’s going to obviously be missed quite heavily, along with the other seniors.
“I could go on forever,” he said. “He’s a freak of nature with his abilities.”