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Redbirds moving on
Darlington's Hunter Johnson is tripped up after a 17-yard gain by Lake Country Lutheran's Brady Kerwin (21) and Nate Stetler (32) during the second half of a Division quarterfinal playoff matchup Saturday. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
DARLINGTON - Senior linebacker Myles Leahy has served as a fixture on defense that has lived for pressuring opposing quarterbacks and forcing turnovers in the playoffs.

Leahy and the Redbirds' defense bottled up Lake Country Lutheran's high-powered offense and rolled to a 41-12 win in a WIAA Division 6 state quarterfinal.

"The kids did a great job of preparing for the challenge," Darlington coach Scott Zywicki said. "It's rewarding for everyone involved that we can take the next step. We are one of four teams left in our division. We hope to take the next step and get back to state. They earned every ounce of what they got."

With the win, Darlington (11-1), last year's Division 6 state runner-up, advances to the state semifinal where they will play Edgar (12-0) at 7 p.m. Friday in DeForest. The winner will clinch a berth to the state championship game Thursday, Nov. 20 at Camp Randall Stadium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In addition to his work on defense, Leahy rushed for 148 yards on 26 carries and scored three touchdowns to power the Redbirds. The Redbirds forced four turnovers, with two fumbles and interceptions by senior Cole McDonald and senior Jason Singer. The Redbirds stymied the Lightning's third-ranked scoring offense limiting them to just 37 total rushing yards. Darlington has forced 14 turnovers in three playoff games.

Lake Country Lutheran quarterback Ben Wilkins completed just 38.7 percent of his passes (12 of 31 with two interceptions). Lake Country Lutheran running back Adam Tovar, who entered the game with 1,200 rushing yards, was limited to no rushing yards on 11 carries.

"All aspects of our defense played excellent," Zywicki said. "We dominated the line of scrimmage. They weren't able to run with any success and we were able to focus on coverage and eliminating the big plays. Our defense compliments our offense. The more a team plays from behind the more risks they take."

The Lightning got off to a fast start with Wilkins hooking up with Grant Johnson on a 35-yard pass. That set up Christen Caliendo's 3-yard TD run. It didn't take the Redbirds long to answer. Darlington sophomore Hunter Johnson bolted for a 69-yard TD run on Darlington's first possession to give the Redbirds a 7-6 lead. Johnson rushed for 133 yards on 10 carries and scored two touchdowns.

The Lightning kept their second drive alive by converting a fake punt. McDonald came up with an interception to thwart the drive at the Redbirds' 48-yard line. Leahy rumbled for a 16-yard TD run to cap a seven-play, 52-yard drive. Darlington senior Cole Whalen came up with a key sack as Wilkins tried to pitch a shuffle pass late in the second quarter to preserve the Redbirds' 20-6 lead at the half.

The Redbirds have won 11 straight games since a season-opening loss to Platteville, and one big addition is having the 6-foot-1 Johnson play cornerback. The Redbirds have relied on using their defensive line and Leahy at linebacker to stop the run. That has allowed them to put more defenders in coverage.

"We are not close to the shell of a defense we were earlier in the year," Zywicki said. "We are running to the ball a lot more. Our defensive backs have been in great position for interceptions."

The Redbirds cashed in on a 10-play, 49-yard drive, culminating in Johnson's 8-yard TD run. Leahy also had 2- and 7-yard TD runs in the second half. McDonald was 2 of 3 passing for 48 yards.

Now the Redbirds will gear up for a showdown with Edgar, which has advanced to the state semifinals in five of the past six years. Edgar has two state championships (2009, 2010) and one state runner-up finish (2008) in that same six-year span.

"We will have to be at our best to run," Zywicki said. "They have excellent size, are very well disciplined and are good athletes. When you get to this point everyone has a good line. It will be a toss-up."