After watching film of St. Thomas Aquinas rack up 476 rushing yards against Blue Valley Southwest, Mill Valley coach Joel Applebee knew his defense would have a tough task at hand with containing the Saints’ flexbone offense.
The Jaguars were up for that challenge, though, and they showed it by limiting the Saints to 85 yards of total offense in Mill Valley’s 42-7 5A semifinal win over Aquinas on Friday.
“We prepared really well this week,” Mill Valley defensive tackle Ethan Kremer said. “We knew what they were going to do, what they were going to try to do and when they were going to try it. We had a great week of prep and were just ready to go.”
Mill Valley’s defense line of Kremer, Cody Moore, Aidan Shaffer and Pete Janssen made sure there weren’t any running lanes for Aquinas’ dynamic duo of Tank Young and Sean Carroll to run through. All 85 yards the Saints' yards came on the ground.
Aquinas (7-4) went blow for blow with Mill Valley (9-2) in a scoreless first quarter, which featured an interception from STA’s Dajni Brooks. Once the Jaguars got rolling in the second quarter, they couldn't be stopped, as they built a 21-0 halftime lead.
“I always have faith in our defense,” Mill Valley quarterback Cooper Marsh said. "I knew after the first couple of drives that the offense had to go to work and that the defense was going to do its job.”
As Quin Wittenauer and Marsh established the run game, the Mill Valley quarterback started to take his shots down field. Marsh connected with Jared Napoli (9 yards), Jacob Hartman (32 yards) and Kendrick Jones (21 yards) for touchdown passes in the second quarter.
“At the beginning of the game, we had to figure some things out. Our kids did a great job of adjusting,” Applebee said. “What I’m most proud of about our offense is that in the second half, we just came out pounding the ball. We got our running game going. We got Quin going. We got Cooper going. I thought they did a great job. It was a great second half.”
In the second half, Marsh scored on runs of 1 and 6 yards and Wittenauer punched one in from 3 yards out to push Mill Valley’s lead to 42-0. Mill Valley’s shutout effort held until Aquinas freshman Gianni Rizzi found pay dirt on a 6-yard run in the final minute.
“Defensively, they’re just playing so confident right now. It helps that we see this offense a lot through the season, but in the end, our kids have really done a great job of believing in what we’re telling them, studying, preparing and doing all the little things to be a great team,” Applebee said.
Along with his five total touchdowns, Marsh completed 7 of 13 passes for 161 yards and tallied 13 carries for 70 yards. Wittenauer paced the Jaguars on the ground with 150 yards on 23 totes, while Napoli corralled four receptions for 81 yards to lead the Mill Valley receiving corps.
“(Napoli) is a huge part since he can catch and he can block,” Marsh said. “Last year he had a couple of big catches in the sub-state game and he did the same this year.”
The kryptonite the Jaguars had in their 16-13 quarterfinal win over De Soto was turnovers, as they coughed the ball up five times. Marsh regained his composure following his interception to Brooks on the first drive and played turnover-free football after that. Hayden Gray hauled in an interception for the Jaguars in the second half to help highlight the Mill Valley defensive performance. The Jaguars’ aggressive mentality in their front seven also played a hand in five fumbles for the Saints.
“It’s been great,” Kremer said of the defensive line’s chemistry. “It’s allowed to be the catalyst of the defense and getting after teams week in and week out.”
The meeting on Friday between the Jaguars and Saints marked the sixth straight year that they have clashed in the playoffs—five of those coming in the semifinals. The Jaguars topped the Saints in the semifinals for the second straight year and will also go on to face Wichita Northwest for a rematch in the title game at 1 p.m. on November 28 at Pittsburg State’s Carnie Smith Stadium. Mill Valley edged Wichita Northwest, 40-31, in 2019 to claim its third 5A crown since 2015.
“It’s always fun to go to a state championship and going two years in a row is awesome,” Marsh said.