Barnesville turns regular-season loss tears into motivation for run to MN state football semifinals
Barnesville enters the state football semifinals on a seven-game winning streak.
BARNESVILLE, Minn. — Barnesville Trojans head football coach Bryan Strand felt how much his players cared after a dramatic triple-overtime loss to Osakis midway through the regular season.
“They were crying on the field after the game,” said Strand, who is in his 17th season with the Trojans. “It wasn’t just one or two.”
That proved to be a turning-point moment for Barnesville, which hasn’t lost since.
“We don’t want that comfort level of being OK with losing,” Strand said. “They didn’t want to have that feeling again. I think they said, ‘No, we’re not going to lose.’”
The Trojans (9-2) have won seven consecutive games heading into the Minnesota Class AA state semifinals. Barnesville plays Chatfield (11-1) at 2 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
The Trojans have advanced to the state semifinals three times in the past four seasons, including a state title game appearance in 2018. The playoffs were halted during the section playoffs last season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It makes you that much more hungry because it’s unfinished business with a bunch of guys who didn’t get a chance to finish the season so you want to do it for yourself, but also for them,” said Barnesville senior running back Cameron Heng, who has rushed for 1,181 yards and 14 touchdowns on 143 attempts.
The Trojans had a 2-2 record after the Osakis loss.
“It kind of made us realize that none of these games are going to come easy,” Heng said. “We’ve got to put in the work every week if we want to get the results. We don’t lose very many games and it was also a very high-stakes game since they (Osakis) were ranked so high. When we came out with a loss, a lot of people took it really hard.”
Heng is a three-year starter on defense and two-year starter on offense for the Trojans. He’s been part of multiple games at U.S. Bank Stadium during his prep career along with senior defensive end and tight end Kaden Zenzen. Zenzen is a three-year starter on offense and two-year defensive starter for Barnesville.
Zenzen also roamed the sidelines for Barnesville state playoff games at U.S. Bank Stadium as a student manager before he became a varsity player.
“The experience of going to U.S. Bank Stadium and playing with your buddies and your friends, it’s unreal. It’s an unreal experience,” said Zenzen, who has committed to play football at North Dakota State. “Even since I was managing, it’s been crazy wanting to get back there and play there. It’s so much fun.”
Zenzen said a 49-14 victory against Detroit Lakes, a traditionally strong Class 4A program, was also an important confidence booster for Barnesville during the regular season.
“The confidence our kids got from that game was second to none,” Strand added.
Chatfield quarterback Sam Backer, who started the season at running back, is a dynamic runner who leads an explosive offense. The Gophers have won 11 consecutive games and scored at least 40 points in seven of their past eight games. Chatfield cruised to a 50-20 victory against Minneapolis North in the state quarterfinals.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Backer rushed for 237 yards and six touchdowns on 21 attempts and added a TD pass against North. He has rushed for 2,297 yards and 38 touchdowns this season, averaging 10.4 yards per attempt.
“They probably have one of the best tailbacks in the state,” Strand said. “He’s everything for them. He’s good. We’ve got to find a way to corral him. … He’s hands down the best one we’ve seen.”
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Zenzen is one of the key defensive players for the Trojans in trying to contain Backer. Zenzen has 14.5 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss.
“He disrupts so much,” Strand said. “He’s a beast. Zenzen has just played tougher and tougher and tougher every game.”
Zenzen also has 18 catches for 418 yards and nine touchdowns. Barnesville senior quarterback Noah Krause has completed 37 of 72 passes for 874 yards and 16 touchdowns with three interceptions.
“I think their focus has been fantastic, they’re working hard at it,” Strand said. “They had this goal. They have a goal of getting to the state championship game, that’s what this team is after and they are working hard at it.”
Barnesville practiced in the Fargodome in the days leading up to its showdown against Chatfield, getting acclimated to playing indoor football on artificial turf.
“We’ve been around this winning culture and it makes us want to win a state championship and bring one home,” Heng said. “Seeing the past teams almost get to that point of winning the state championship makes you that much more hungry.”