Vikings make it to section semis two years in a row
Two years in a row, the North Branch football team made it to the Section 4AAAA semifinal game. On Oct. 22, the fifth-seeded Vikings traveled to St. Paul Harding for a first-round game against the fourth-seeded Packers, beating them 35-14.
Head coach Nick Nitti said his squad looked sharp that night.
“They did exactly what we wanted,” Nitti said. “They were disciplined and focused. We hung onto the ball and forced them to turn over the ball.”
Senior Tony Denn put up a display on offense with two rushing touchdowns and two touchdown tosses to junior Jack Tholen. Junior Eli Chouinard also earned a rushing touchdown off a 65-yard run. Junior Trey Oday punched through all five extra points.
The following Saturday, the Vikings went up against top-seeded South St. Paul, which came into the semifinal match-up with a record of 7-1. The Packers defeated North Branch 35-0 before going on to beat Hill-Murray in the section final and earning a state bid. South St. Paul fell to Hutchinson in the first round of the Class AAAA state tournament.
“We knew that, physically, they were going to be tough,” Nitti said. “But our kids played tough and made ‘em work for everything they got. I’m proud of our guys — they played their hardest and have nothing to hang their heads about.”
For the Vikings, the first-round win in 2012 over Grand Rapids and this fall’s victory over St. Paul Harding marked the first post-season wins for the North Branch football program in a decade. The Vikings eliminated Monticello in 2003.
In Nitti’s words, North Branch has now gotten the hang of getting to the section semifinal. Now they just need to tune their skills to push to the next level to make it to the finals and finish higher in the Mississippi Eight Conference, which was a new conference for the Vikings this season.
“We’ve definitely improved and come a long way since even a few years ago,” Nitti said. “This conference is much tougher football-wise, and it’s looking pretty good for next year too.”
Defensively, North Branch improved in holding opponents to fewer points this fall with 256, as opposed to giving up 417 points in 2012.
Senior Dylan Dahle led the defense in tackles this fall with 99. Dahle also recorded 37 assisted tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery. Junior Michael Henstch marked 66 tackles, 17 assisted tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery and five sacks on the season while senior Brandon Thauwald earned 58 tackles, 21 assisted tackles and one fumble recovery.
Senior Sam Slaughter had 46 tackles, 30 assisted tackles and one interception, followed by junior Maverick Pate with 41 tackles, 18 assisted tackles and two interceptions. Oday added 35 tackles and two interceptions.
Offensively, North Branch struggled this season with the competition. The team put up 132 points compared to 245 last season.
Denn took charge at the quarterback position by leading the team in touchdowns, rushing for seven and passing for two. Denn recorded 680 yards rushing on 118 carries.
Chouinard totaled six rushing touchdowns as well as a 92-yard kick return score against Duluth East. The running back rushed for 531 yards on 80 carries, and also had 41 yards on just four catches. Junior Kodie Koomo proved another weapon for North Branch this fall by earning 357 yards on 106 attempts while Tholen recorded 234 yards on 52 carries for two touchdowns. Tholen also caught two touchdown passes, earning 133 receiving yards on eight catches. Sophomore John Hunzicker added one touchdown while rushing for 100 yards on 28 carries.
Oday kicked 11 extra points and made one 29-yard field goal.
North Branch will graduate eight seniors from its 50-man roster, a class Nitti said will be hard to replace.
“I’m awful proud of these kids,” Nitti said. “The seniors have just been phenomenal leaders with great work ethic — they have built the foundation we need to take that next step.”