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Darlington rushes back to state after saddling Mustangs
Dar defense
Darlington defenders Jesse Sturtz (#51), Taylor Evenstad (#73) and Hayden Hardyman (#8) combined to bring down a Melrose-Mindoro ball carrier during Friday's WIAA Division 6 Level 4 playoff game in Middleton.

MIDDLETON – Scott Zywicki may not have known what to expect from his Darlington football team when the season started, but he has certainly been impressed by their performance week after week.
Lucky for him, he’ll have one more week with his Redbirds.

The top-ranked Redbirds (13-0 overall) secured their third consecutive state finals berth by rolling up over 550 yards of offense en route to a 42-12 victory over Melrose-Mindoro in a WIAA Division 6 Level 4 state semifinal game held at Middleton High School on Friday, Nov. 13.

“I’ve never been more impressed by a group of young men. It’s just unbelievable the pride they take in everything they do. It’s so enjoyable to be around these kids. I get to coach them for one more week, so I couldn’t be happier,” said Coach Zywicki.

While Zywicki knew he had a lot of talented players coming back following back-to-back runner-up finishes in Division 6, he also knew he had to fill a lot of positions with those talented yet inexperienced players after graduating 14 players from last year’s team.

Darlington started the season off strong, and then continued to get stronger and stronger as the season wore on to fight their way back to Camp Randall for another shot at a gold ball.

“I figured we had enough talent coming back to be a very solid team and that we’d be competitive in each and every game. These young men have exceeded all my expectations,” Zywicki added.

Junior halfback Hunter Johnson continued his assault on the Redbirds’ record book by adding to his school rushing and scoring records by running 21 times for 188 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Redbird onslaught.

Junior halfback Trevor Johnson had over 100 yards rushing (145) and receiving (115) and caught a pair of touchdown passes from junior quarterback Jared Meister to aid the rout.

Hunter Johnson has run for 2,246 yards this season, while Trevor Johnson (1,137) and senior fullback Conrad Blosch (1,047) each went over a 1,000 yards during Friday’s game to give the Redbirds three 1,000-yard backs for the third year in a row and fifth time in school history.

“We have such a wonderful dimension– running inside or outside– that it’s very tough to stop us. You have to pick your poison,” commented Zywicki.

After a scoreless first quarter– just the second time that’s happened to the Redbirds all season, the Dairyland co-champions Melrose-Mindoro (10-3) found the end zone first early in the second quarter when junior quarterback Sam Boone hit senior Devon Christopherson on a 30-yard scoring strike for a 6-0 lead.

It was the first time this season the ‘Birds had not scored first in a game, and the six points were the most they had trailed by all season.

“I was very worried about their skill kids,” admitted Zywicki about the Mustangs’ spread attack. “We tried to blitz them and they threw a touchdown because we emptied the middle of the field. I decided that was not the way to go.”

Darlington needed just four plays and a minute and 15 seconds to respond. H. Johnson capped the 63-yard drive with a 1-yard TD run. Chad Golackson’s extra point kick put the Redbirds ahead to stay at 7-6 with 6:59 to play in the second quarter.

The Redbirds found the end zone once again with only 13 seconds remaining in the first half when Meister connected with Trevor Johnson on a 26-yard TD pass to up the lead to 14-6.

Hunter Johnson added a 12-yard TD run on Darlington’s opening drive of the second half, and Trevor Johnson made a spectacular leaping grab on a 46-yard catch-and-run scoring strike from Meister on their second drive of the second half to extend the lead to 28-6.

“The defense and offense both got stronger as the game went on. Hopefully our diversity will give us a real chance to come home with a state ball this year,” said Zywicki.

The Mustangs caught their lone break of the second half when senior Aaron Scafe returned a punt 52 yards for a score with under a minute to play in the third quarter to make it 28-12. It was the first special teams score allowed by the ‘Birds this season.

The Redbirds needed just three plays to answer back with a score of their own. Hunter Johnson scored from a yard out on the first play of the fourth quarter to push the lead to 35-12, and he would tack on another 1-yard run with 3:32 remaining to seal the victory.

The Mustangs managed just 89 yards on the six possessions following their lone offensive score, including a total of 48 yards on their four second-half drives– 34 of which came against the Redbirds’ back-ups on the final drive of the night.

“I thought our secondary played about as well as they’ve played all year. We got a nice rush on their quarterback and we held up in the back end,” stated Zywicki. “We didn’t force any turnovers, but I’ll tell you what, they certainly didn’t move the ball with any type of consistency on us.”

The key, according to Coach Zywicki, was the ability of the four defensive linemen and their middle linebacker to stuff the run and pressure Boone.

“It was key that we could just leave those four linemen in there with Jesse Sturtz inside to man the rush. Those five kids did the job, allowing us to drop six into coverage. We were able to get some sacks– and some long ones at that– to put them in some long yardage situations,” Zywicki said.

The Redbirds surrendered a season-low 19 rushing yards on 17 attempts, and allowed another 131 passing yards on Boone’s 16-for-30 night. Christopherson had five catches for 52 yards and a score to lead his team.
Meister went 5-for-7 through the air for 150 yards yards and two TDs for the ‘Birds.

“(Jared) throws a nice ball. I’ve always been impressed with his arm, but he made some good decisions on this throws. He put the ball on the money exactly where it needed to be,” explained Zywicki.

The Redbirds ran the ball 51 times for 410 yards to finish with 560 total yards on the night. Blosch toted it 15 times for 78 yards for the ‘Birds.

“The line has been fabulous. They’ve been the unsung heroes all season long. We have kids on the line who take a great deal of pride in what they do to get the running backs their yards that they’ve been getting,” Zywicki added about the line consisting of center Josh Weaver, guards Sturtz and Taylor Evenstad, tackles Golackson and Logan Muhlstein and tight end Hayden Hardyman.

Defensively, Meister had eight tackles including one for a loss for the ‘Birds, while Hardyman tallied eight tackles and Sturtz added six tackles with two TFLs and a sack.

Evenstad registered two sacks and Muhlstein and Mitchell Wagner added one sack apiece, while H. Johnson knocked down three passes on the night.

The Redbirds will have a chance to avenge their 37-28 loss to Saint Mary’s Springs in last year’s D6 state final game after the Ledgers (11-2) defeated previously unbeaten Grantsburg, 34-7, at D.C. Everest on Saturday afternoon to set up a rematch with the Redbirds in Madison on Thursday, Nov. 19.

“They have all the talent that you would want on a team. They have excellent speed at the skill positions and are very stout up front on both lines. It will be tough sledding inside. We will have to hold our own in the trenches to be successful.  We also have to capitalize on any chances we have for a big play,” said Zywicki about this year’s Ledger squad. “It should be one heck of a game because both teams could easily win the state championship. We will have to bring our A game on Thursday.”

Kickoff is set for 1:05 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium.

Melrose-Mindoro… 0    6    6    0 – 12
Darlington………… 0  14  14  14 – 42

MM – D. Christopherson, 30 pass from S. Boone (kick failed)
D – Hunter Johnson, 1 run (Chad Golackson kick)
D – Trevor Johnson, 26 pass from Jared Meister (Golackson kick)
D – H. Johnson, 12 run (Golackson kick)
D – T. Johnson, 46 pass from Jared Meister (Golackson kick)
MM – Scafe, 52 punt return (pass failed)
D – H. Johnson, 1 run (Golackson kick)
D – H. Johnson, 1 run (Golackson kick)
Team Stats: First Downs– MM 8; D 19. Rushing– MM 17-19; D 51-410. Passing– MM 16-30-0, 131; D 5-7-1, 150. Fumbles-Lost– MM 0-0; D 2-1. Penalties– MM 3-30, D 3-20.
Darlington leaders: Rushing (Att-Yds-Td)– Hunter Johnson, 21-188-4; Trevor Johnson, 13-145-0; Conrad Blosch, 15-78-0. Passing (Comp-Att-Int-TD-Yds)– Jared Meister, 5-7-1-2, 150. Receiving (Rec-Yds-TD)– T. Johnson, 3-115-2; Brayden McDonald, 1-24-0; Will Schwartz, 1-11-0.