Football: Ponies can wrap up SEC title with victory over Hastings

The Stillwater football team can capture its third Suburban East Conference championship in four years with a victory over Hastings on Wednesday at McNamara Stadium.

Facing an opponent that already knocked perennial contender Cretin-Derham Hall out of the Suburban East Conference title hunt this season, the Stillwater football team can earn at least a share of its third title in four seasons when it travels to Hastings for Wednesday’s regular season finale at McNamara Stadium. The third-ranked Ponies (6-1 SEC, 6-1) held off Roseville 28-19 on Friday and have won seven in a row against Hastings dating back to 2005 — including a 28-7 victory in last year’s meeting — but the Raiders (3-4, 3-4) won 10 straight against Stillwater from 1997 to 2004. Hastings lost to White Bear Lake 20-7 on Friday, but showed upset potential while posting a 34-33 overtime victory over Cretin-Derham Hall in Week 4. In a series that dates back to 1898, Stillwater owns a 45-31-2 record against the Raiders. The Ponies won back-to-back SEC titles under then-coach Scott Hoffman in 2009 and 2010 and are looking for their first under second-year head coach Beau LaBore.

“The best part is our football team has gotten a little bit better each week,” the coach said. “I think the SEC is a very good football league and to have the opportunity to come out on top is a great accomplishment for our program and to do it three times in four years would be outstanding. In the end, we need to stay focused, we need to play four quarters of football in all three aspects of the game and if we take care of Stillwater we’ll have a lot to celebrate. But if we make some mistakes, if we come out or finish flat, this is a team that can trap us, so our players know that there’s a lot on the line and they know there’s a reason we’re in the situation we’re in.”

Behind senior quarterback Alex Wiese, the Raiders rank second in the conference with 1,506 yards, but rank dead last in rushing yards at 685. Wiese has completed 100 of 213 passes (46.9 percent) passes for 1,476 yards and 10 touchdowns with a league-high 11 interceptions. His favorite target is younger brother Zach Wiese, a junior has leads the conference with 36 receptions for 577 yards and (16.0 avg.) and five touchdowns. Ross Dylla isn’t far behind with 26 catches for 383 yards (14.7 avg.) and three touchdowns. Daryale Harris leads the Raiders on the ground with 76 rushes for 271 yards (3.6 avg.) and two touchdowns. Only Forest Lake has committed more turnovers than the Raiders with 19.

“The thing that grabs our attention is the fact that they beat Cretin,” LaBore said. “Hastings has a great knack for staying in games and they have big-play capabilities. They have an offense that can be explosive and defensively it’s kind of the same thing when they’re playing well.”

With the exception of special teams, Stillwater’s numbers are slightly underwhelming except for the victory column. The Ponies rank ninth in total offense at 260.4 yards per game while giving up 303.9 yards, which is sixth best in the SEC — although only Mounds View (70) has allowed fewer points than Stillwater (118). The injury news continues to be unfavorable for the Ponies, with tenacious defensive lineman Marvin Lerol expected to miss Wednesday’s game.

“We have shown we’re resilient and we have some depth and we believe that someone is going to step up, in the case of an injury or needing a big play,” LaBore said. “We’ve shown that we’re not just an offense, we’re not just a defense and we’re not just special teams, but it’s the sum of our parts that has put us in a championship football game.”

In addition to a conference championship, a victory on Wednesday will also make a strong case for the Ponies to receive the No. 1 seed for the Section 4AAAAAA tournament, which begins play on Oct. 26. Stillwater beat Mounds View head to head, but a loss by the Ponies on Wednesday would likely drop them out of the top two spots and create a significantly tougher road in the postseason as Forest Lake (0-7) or North St. Paul (0-7) are the likely first-round opponents for the No. 1 and 2 seeds. Following the first round games, Section 4AAAAAA teams will be paired off with corresponding teams (in descending order based on their seed) from Section 3AAAAAA for the second round to determine who advances to the state tournament. Section 3AAAAAA is made up primarily of South Suburban Conference teams, including Burnsville, Eagan, Eastview, Lakeville North, Lakeville South, Park-Cottage Grove, Prior Lake and Rosemount.