Jerry Lano had his first undefeated regular season in 2005, but was disappointed to see Dakota become one of the smallest teams picked for the Class 2A football playoffs. He thought the Indians could have won state in 1A.
Well, they won state in 2A instead. Dakota did the same in 2007. Lano quickly came to prefer 2A.
"I liked 2A because you didn’t have to play the same teams from your same conference over and over again," Lano said. "1A was just a conference tournament."
Indeed, Dakota won its last 10 playoff games in 2A. When it returned to 1A for good in 2008, Dakota teams that were a combined 26-1 in the regular season the next three years lost in the first round of the playoffs to Orangeville in 2008 and in the second round to Lena-Winslow in 2009 and 2010.
And even when the Indians returned to the top in 2011, they had to come-from-behind to beat three NUIC rivals. That’s a path that has become familiar for a league that has won 13 state titles in the last 15 years.
"Aquin, Forreston, Lena, they all could have won the state tournament that year," Lano said. "We just happened to get on a roll. Our conference was so tough."
The last one of those games, a 25-21 semifinal thriller at Aquin, makes our list as the sixth-greatest football game in Freeport history.
Dakota had lost to Forreston (32-7) and Aquin (24-12) in weeks 2 and 3 when it was missing one starter and had another (Adam Lawson) playing on a bad ankle. They also beat Lena-Winslow 16-13 in the final week to tie Forreston and Le-Win for the NUIC Northwest title, but only after Le-Win star Quinn Haas dislocated his elbow with Le-Win leading 13-0 and was carried off the field at halftime in an ambulance.
So, of course, the Indians had to play, in order, Le-Win, Forreston and Aquin in the second, third and fourth weeks of the playoffs.
Haas was back for Le-Win; his 63-yard first-quarter run gave the Panthers the lead. But Dakota cashed in on two Le-Win fumbles to score 16 points in the last 10 minutes and win 16-7. Dakota then beat Forreston 16-9, stopping the Cardinals on fourth-and-2 at the 3 in the final four minutes, with Skylar Boyer and Cody Rule rising up to stop a Hunter Hake run up the middle.
And then came Aquin. A game Lano knew was going to be tough just by looking at a map.
"It’s just so hard to play at Aquin," Lano said. "Unless you have been on the other sideline playing at Aquin, you can’t understand. It’s just tremendously hard to play there. You can’t imagine how tight you get. Your breathing changes. You don’t catch your breath until that last whistle blows."
Especially in this game.
Dakota controlled the clock, holding the ball for 31 minutes and 44 seconds to 16:26 for Aquin. Jake Apple carried 36 times for 177 yards. And quarterback Drew Geiseman faked to Apple and scored on 30- and 37-yard keepers for Dakota’s last two touchdowns to turn a 21-13 deficit into a 25-21 lead with 2:33 to play.
"You run Apple that much, everyone expects Apple to keep the ball," Lano said of a back who would run for a state title-game record 377 yards the next week and finish with an NUIC-record 2,578 yards on the season. "Drew made some nice moves, but Apple was a good decoy."
Aquin didn’t go away easily. The Bulldogs’ only loss had been 24-17 to Stockton that decided the NUIC Upstate title before beating the Blackhawks 27-12 in the second round of the playoffs. They were champions. And they played like it, twice keeping the game alive on what could have been their final play.
On fourth-and-7 from their own 47, Lucas Diemer made a one-handed catch to keep the drive alive. Then Sawyer Shaw caught a 25-yard pass from Nolan Brannick on fourth-and-22.
"That big, tall, good quarterback rolled out and ran past the line of scrimmage," Lano said. "That’s Dakota speaking. Aquin said he didn’t run past the line. That was the play that got them in position."
On third-and-10 from the 22, Brannick came through with a 17-yard pass to Zach Gogel at the 5. Or did he? In another disputed play, Dakota’s Matt Bordner hit Gogel as he caught the ball. He jarred the ball loose and Geiseman, who played cornerback on defense, recovered what was ruled a fumble.
"Again, that depends on who you ask," Lano said. "I was standing right there. To me, it was close. A lot of people said it was a catch and a fumble. Aquin, of course, said it wasn’t a catch."
Even if it wasn’t, it would have left Aquin facing fourth-and-10 from the 22. Bordner’s hit kept it from being a first down at the 5. Either way, he made a clutch play after several clutch plays by Aquin.
How did the Indians stay championship calm after a fourth-and-22 play in the final minute that they didn’t think should have counted?
Because that’s what you have to do to advance through the NUIC bracket of a state football tournament.
"You’ve just got to stay calm," Lano said. "Anything can happen at any time in the game. If you lose your head and go nuts as a coach, it takes concentration away from the players and they lose their head and go nuts. You just start over. It’s first down. They’ve got a ways to go yet."
A week later, Dakota trailed at halftime before rallying from behind for the fourth time in its last six games and beating Tuscola 41-27 for its third state title for Lano, who coached the Indians for 25 years. It wasn’t as dramatic as the Aquin game — or any of the three previous playoff games — just business as usual for a team that always knew when to turn it on.
"It just seemed like this team, whenever they got a spark, it just changed the way they played," Lano said. "Something good would happen and all of a sudden it was like a different team."
Matt Trowbridge: 815-987-1383; firstname.lastname@example.org; @matttrowbridge