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AREA HIGH SCHOOL FEATURE: Lots of incentive to go around

One game, one touchdown, seven points -- 10 months later, that margin of victory has impacted two of the perennial powers in Minnesota's 9-man high school football ranks.

One game, one touchdown, seven points -- 10 months later, that margin of victory has impacted two of the perennial powers in Minnesota's 9-man high school football ranks.

Kittson County Central ended Stephen-Argyle's run of 12 consecutive section championships when the Bearcats beat the Storm 7-0 in the Section 8 title game last October. That win snapped Stephen-Argyle's state-record 76-game winning streak and ended the Storm's bid for a sixth straight state title.

That game didn't diminish the drive in the Stephen-Argyle program. Nor did it leave Kittson County Central with a lasting sense of mission accomplished.

On the contrary on both counts.

"I can see how (the game) put a dent in that armor of invincibility at Stephen-Argyle," veteran KCC coach Terry Ogorek said. "They enjoyed that winning streak; now, they're working harder to start a new one. And from our aspect, the game was a confidence builder, seeing how hard work can pay off."

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New role

Stephen and Argyle consolidated schools in fall 1996. That fall, the Storm started their run of 12 consecutive section championships. Then, Kittson County Central ended that run.

The loss to the Bearcats "showed us that we can't go out and just expect to win, that we can be beaten," said J.J. Safranski, a senior this season who was a regular in 2008. "I think it motivated us to work harder. We did more running and weight lifting in the offseason."

A recurring theme in recent seasons was the winning streak was added incentive, that the Storm players didn't want to be the ones playing when that winning steak ended.

Storm coach Mark Kroulik now wonders how much of a motivator the streak was.

"The kids had to work hard to keep it alive," Kroulik said. "But maybe it wasn't as much of an incentive as we coaches thought it was. With the streak over, this was as good as any summer we've had as far as the number of kids we had in the weight rooms and how hard they were working. There was absolutely no dropoff in effort.

"To this group, last year is gone. They've worked for what they can do this year. It's been about looking ahead."

Kroulik said he's seen no negative residual effects from that loss late last October. And Safranski sees a current season in which there is less pressure. Expectations remain high, but there no longer is the burden of being defending champions, nor is there the pressure of extending the streak.

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"It's taken a lot of pressure off," Safranski said. "People aren't looking at us to keep it going. (The loss) showed that if teams work hard they can beat us. It showed that we're not invincible, that we have to work hard.

"When you look back -- the 12 straight section titles, the winning streak, the five state championships in a row -- it's pretty amazing. Kids dream about winning a state championship. We had five in a row."

KCC frustration ends

In eight of the 12 section championship games that Stephen-Argyle won, Terry Ogorek's teams -- first Kittson Central, then Kittson County Central -- were the opponents. Bearcats senior Trevor Austin watched two older brothers play on KC teams that came up one win shy of state playoff berths.

"We'd talked about how Stephen-Argyle had won all those big games," Austin said. "But it's something you couldn't think about a lot. You didn't want to start thinking that you couldn't beat them.

"They're always a good team. To beat them, it brought our confidence up. And it's made us work harder. We feel that the target is on our back this year. Everybody is out to beat us. We wanted to work harder so we could try to do it again this year."

The hard work is a by-product of the success of 2008, when KCC went on to reach the state semifinals before being eliminated. Austin said the team is more confident in itself.

Ogorek has seen one unexpected by-product -- numbers.

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"In our lower grades, the numbers are higher than they've been in several years," Ogorek said. "It's not something we were projecting."

The players from both teams have come and gone. The coaches have been the constants. And, Ogorek said, being second so often hasn't always been easy.

"I'd be a liar if I said it wasn't frustrating at times," Ogorek said. "You have to really hand it to the kids. They kept working hard."

Beating Stephen-Argyle in the section final "will have an effect on a lot of programs, not just ours," Ogorek said. "They all saw that we had success. They saw that if kids work hard, good things can happen. That's a healthy situation. The more competitive the games are, the better it is for everybody."

DeVillers reports on sports. Reach him at (701) 780-1128; (800) 477-6572, ext. 128; or send e-mail to gdevillers@gfherald.com .

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