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Redbirds aiming for gold
Darlington's Brett Erickson holds onto a Division 6 Level 4 Champion plaque as their coaches speak to them following a win over Edgar to advance to the Division 6 state championship game Friday. Darlington beat Edgar 21-20. The Redbirds will play in the state championship game for the second straight season, one year after falling to Shiocton 35-0. Darlington is set to face Fond du Lac St. Mary's Springs at 1 p.m. Thursday. (Times file photo: Anthony Wahl)
DARLINGTON - Many football players dream of playing at Camp Randall Stadium. For Darlington senior Cole Whalen, the experience of walking off the field after the state championship game was an unfulfilled feeling last year.

Shiocton beat Darlington 35-0 for the state title last year and the Redbirds won the silver ball in their first state appearance since 1997. Fast forward a year and Darlington (12-1) is in the state championship game for the second straight year and this time they will play Fond du Lac St. Mary's Springs (13-0) in a WIAA Division 6 state championship game at 1 p.m. Thursday.

"It was embarrassing last year and that was the worst feeling," Whalen said. "We have one last shot to get the gold ball."

St. Mary's Springs has played in the state title game five of the last six years and won two straight championships in 2011 and 2012. The Redbirds beat the Ledgers 28-13 in the state semifinals last year to snap the Ledgers' 39-game winning streak, which was the ninth best in the nation at the time. St. Mary's Springs coach Bob Hyland is in his 44th year and is the winningest coach in Wisconsin history with more than 400 career wins.

"St. Mary's Springs is one of the top programs in the state," Whalen said. "It doesn't matter who we play, it will be a big game at state."

St. Mary's Springs runs a veer option offense. In the state semifinal game last year, the Redbirds gashed the Ledgers rushing for 333 total yards and relied on the big play. St. Mary's Springs running back Samuel Spranger has rushed for 1,469 yards and 19 TDs this year. He is averaging 113 yards per game. Quarterback Blane Bauer has passed for 1,147 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Bauer has also run for 10 TDs.

"We pride ourselves on stopping the run and making teams one-dimensional," Darlington senior defensive tackle Zach Wolf said. "They (St. Mary's Springs) will want revenge against us. Playing for the state championship just makes it that much better."

Whalen credits the defense's success to the production from defensive tackles Brett Erickson and Wolf. Erickson leads the team with 72 tackles and Wolf is a force at clogging the middle at 6 feet and 266 pounds.

"It helps when you have defensive linemen like Brett and Zach," Whalen said. "It allows the linebackers and defensive ends to get to the ball and they expect us to make plays."

Whalen has a team-high five sacks and is tied for third on the team with 62 tackles this year. The Redbirds have thrived at forcing turnovers in the playoffs with 18 in four games. Darlington senior Cole McDonald and sophomore Hunter Johnson each have five interceptions this season and senior Dane Siegenthaler has four interceptions.

"Last year we left Camp Randall with a sour taste in our mouth," McDonald said. "We have another shot and we just want to take advantage of it."

The Redbirds' high-powered offense, which averages 48.5 points per game, has been taking advantage of a lot of opposing defenses this year. The three-pronged rushing attack includes senior fullback Myles Leahy (1,206 rushing yards and 24 TDs), senior Jason Singer (1,132 yards and 17 TDs) and Johnson (1,002 yards and 12 TDs).

The Ledgers will look to stop the Redbirds' running game by bringing pressure.

"They may line seven guys up at the line of scrimmage," Darlington coach Scott Zywicki said. "They like to blitz and shoot from all angles. They are very good at filling gaps"

Singer is also the leading receiver for the Redbirds with 16 receptions for 554 yards and eight touchdowns. He is often used on seam passes out of the backfield.

"I don't think we will sneak up on them," Zywicki said. "They will be aware of Jason's speed. They will probably put one of their best defenders on him."

When a team lives by the blitz, they could die by the blitz. There could be a lot of room to run if the Redbirds break past the line of scrimmage into the secondary.

"Hopefully, we can hit them for a couple of big runs like last year," Zywicki said.

The blitzing could open up other big plays in the passing game. McDonald has passed for 1,174 yards and 17 TDs with just three interceptions this year. Whalen at tight end could be a key to the Redbirds' success.

"He may be able to turn around and just box out a smaller defensive back with his 6-3, 220 pound frame to catch the ball," Zywicki said.

Hyland admits St. Mary's Springs has a smaller team than last year and he wasn't sure if they could make a run to state this season.

"We always plan on it," Hyland said of making it to the state title game. "I didn't know if we had the horses to do it this year. We have not faced anyone as physical as them (Darlington)."

Zywicki is downplaying the revenge factor.

"I don't buy into the revenge thing," he said. "They (St. Mary's Springs) want to win it this year for themselves."

Making it back to state for the second straight year is a team-builder for the Redbirds, which made a trip to the state championship game eight times in an 11-year span from 1987-1997. The Redbirds have won four Division 5 state titles including 1987, 1990, 1991 and 1995.

"They (Darlington) want to write their own legacy," Zywicki said of this year's seniors. "It's special for everyone, and for me to share it with them. It reaffirms the program we have and that we are doing things the right way."