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Game of the Week - Huskies ready for play-in game

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Almena-Northern Valley High School senior quarterback Hunter Chandler believes the Huskies have two main keys for Friday's home district contest against Thunder Ridge: keep pounding the ball offensively and step up on defense.

"Just throw everything at them that we have," Chandler said.

Northern Valley has done the first aspect well all season and ranks as eight-man's top rushing attack at 343.4 yards per game, fifth in total offense at 409 yards per contest and seventh with 350 points, according to MaxPreps.com.

The second part, though, has helped the Huskies to a 4-3 mark, 2-1 in Eight-Man Division II, District 5. Friday's winner reaches the postseason, while the loser is done.

"I am getting pretty excited and pretty nervous at the same time," Chandler said. "It's a big game. Probably the biggest one ever since it's going to determine whether we go to playoffs or not."

Thunder Ridge is 6-1, 2-1 in district. Both teams have lost to Beloit/St. John's Tipton, 7-0 and ranked No. 5 in the statewide media poll in the classification. Thunder Ridge has won the last five meetings.

The last two seasons helped lead to a state title and state runner-up. Northern Valley is 17-8 since the start of the 2011 season, but no playoff games.

"Pretty good week of practice," coach Chuck Fessenden said. "Kids are pretty focused. Of course, they know what Thunder Ridge is like. They are pretty serious about it. Yeah, I think our kids are pretty excited to play. You either win it, and you go on, or you lose it and you are done, so it's a pretty big game for us."

Last Friday, Northern Valley led one-win Stockton 42-38 at the end of three quarters, but outscored the Tigers 30-6 in the fourth. Northern Valley ran 80 plays, including 73 rushes for 601 yards. Fessenden's plan was to keep pounding against Stockton. In the third quarter, Stockton lost its middle linebacker to an injury.

"That made a little bit of a difference," Fessenden said. "Our kids just kept running and running and we were having quite a bit of success, and I think it just kind of wore them out eventually."

Fessenden, in his 38th year with Northern Valley, still holds the eight-man record for most points and highest margin of victory with an 118-6 win against Pike Valley in 1985, according to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. However, Friday's victory could have set a record for total offense and rushing yards at Northern Valley.

"A lot of times, when we've had good teams, we might score quite a few points, but you had the 45-point rule and the game would end," he said. "This one, we didn't get to the 45-point rule, so it never ended, so you went clear to the fourth quarter."

Chandler has 134 carries for 900 yards and 15 scores, while completing 28 of 58 passes for 462 yards with an 8/1 TD/INT ratio. Senior Jordan Baird has 88 carries for 698 yards and 14 scores, and junior Phillip Bryant has collected 112 carries for 654 yards and eight TDs. All three players are returning starters.

"I have had a pretty good season so far," Chandler said. "I have been happy. It's been my last year, so I just try and go out and make the best of every play. I don't have many snaps left."

Defensively, Northern Valley ranks No. 31 out of 48 Eight-Man, Division II teams with 270 points allowed. Thunder Ridge stands sixth at 98 points.

"On defense, I think we are just worn out from going so hard on offense," Chandler said. "I think it's more like before the halves when we get really tired is where we make most of our mistakes."

Fessenden expected his team to be better defensively. Against Stockton, Northern Valley had trouble defending the option. Thunder Ridge has worn the Huskies down with size and physicality en route to 52-6, 56-6, 54-8, 52-0 and 60-14 wins. This season, Thunder Ridge has plenty of size and speedy junior tailback Trent Rietzke.

"We need to be physical, because they are going to be physical and then we just need to try and stop Rietzke from getting to the outside and from running down the sidelines," Chandler said. "If we can shut him down, then I think they will have a lot harder time on offense."