The section playoffs offer prep football teams an opportunity to keep a good season going or to get a fresh start on a bad one.
Willmar has a good season going, entering its Section 6AAAAA opener against Buffalo as the No. 3 seed, with a 6-2 overall record and a 4-1 division mark in the tough Central Lakes Conference.
Behind junior quarterback Auggie Hahn, the Cardinals are averaging almost 40 points per game. Hahn has accounted for almost 2,300 yards running and passing and he’s completing passes at a 66 percent clip and has thrown 15 touchdowns against 7 interceptions.
His three main targets - Austin Grove, Adam Nibaur and Chris Cunningham - all rank among the Tribune area’s top 10 in yards, combining for 90 catches, 1,297 yards and 10 TDs. All three average between 14 and 15 yards per reception.
And while the Cardinals throw the ball well, they can run it, too, if the conditions are difficult. Michael Heitzman has 582 yards on 141 carries and he’s scored 15 touchdowns. Hahn has run for 385 yards and 8 scores.
But the Cardinals have one of the tougher draws in the state in 6AAAAA. To get to state, Willmar likely would have to get by Rogers (8-0), ranked No. 4 in the state, or St. Michael-Albertville (7-1), which was ranked No. 5 before a 38-37 overtime loss at Rogers on Wednesday.
Here’s a look at the other area teams in playoff action on Tuesday:
New London-Spicer will be looking to regain its swagger after a stinging 33-16 non-conference loss to St. Peter at home on Wednesday.
The Wildcats (6-2) are the section’s top-seeded team and get a first-round bye.
They play the winner of the Litchfield-Redwood Falls first round matchup on Saturday at Pederson Field.
The Wildcats are 2-0 in section games this season, with a 42-38 win over No. 2-seed Annandale - which ended NLS’ season, 20-17, in the first round of the Class AAA state tournament last year - and a 57-8 win over No. 4 Litchfield.
The Dragons (2-6) play No. 5 Redwood Valley (2-6) while No. 7 Montevideo (2-6) plays at Annandale (5-3). No. 3 Melrose (5-3) plays No. 6 Morris/Chokio-Alberta (2-6).
This section is a crowd of West Central Conference teams, with five among the bottom six seeds. And all those teams have to do is get by WCC champion and top-seed Paynesville (8-0), tied as the No. 6 team in the state, or 2-seed Minneota (8-0), ranked No. 4 in the state.
No. 8 Yellow Medicine East (1-7), which broke a 26-game losing streak last week, gets the uneviable task of playing the Bulldogs on the road. The No. 7-seed and struggling Benson Braves (1-7) - outscored 101-0 their last three games - will have to try and break that scoreless streak at Minneota, which scores 52.4 points per game while giving up just 8.1 points per game.
No. 3 BOLD has overcome injuries to key players to forge a 6-2 record and begins its quest to return to the state tournament hosting No. 6-seed Eden Valley-Watkins (2-6).
No. 4-seed Minnewaska (5-3) won 34-13 in an Oct. 4 road game at No. 5-seed Sauk Centre (4-4) and now the Lakers open the playoffs at home against the Mainstreeters.
Last year, Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg picked up one of its four wins with a 54-40 victory over Minneapolis North in the first round of the playoffs.
It’s a different world a year later. Top-seed North (6-2) plays host to the winless and No. 8-seed Saints (0-8). North was ranked No. 8 in the state last week and has won five straight games, averaging 45 points per game during that streak, after opening the season 1-2.
No. 2-seed Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (7-1) wants to keep rolling along in a season the Jaguars have been building up to for three years.
Last year, BBE won six of seven games to end the season and came up a game short of the state tournament, falling 6-0 to ACGC in the section finals. In 2011, the Jags lost by a point in the section semifinals. They open against No. 7-seed Kimball (0-8), a team the Jaguars defeated 58-12 on Sept. 6.
No. 3-seed ACGC, a state tournament quarterfinalist in 2012, has rebounded smoothly from a minor midseason hiccup. The Falcons lost two straight games, by a total of seven points, to tough Paynesville and Minnewaska teams, then sneaked by two-win Morris/CA 7-0 at home.
Since then, ACGC has been dominant, powering into the playoffs by winning three straight and outscoring their opponents 121-6. The Falcons open at home against No. 6-seed Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart (2-6).
Section top-seed Dawson-Boyd is after a third-straight state tournament trip and the path there this year could a little easier than in 2011, when the 14-0 Blackjacks won the championship, and in 2012, when they lost in the state semifinals.
Little Sioux and former section rival Minneota, which handed the No. 5-ranked Blackjacks (7-1) their lone defeat 27-6 on Sept. 27, is now in Class AA. The Vikings knocked Dawson-Boyd out in the section finals in 2009 and 2010.
The Blackjacks, who open against No. 8-seed Russell-Tyler-Ruthton (0-8), could be tested by No. 2 Wabasso (8-0). No. 3-seed MACCRAY (4-4) has won three of its last four games, losing by eight to No. 5 seed and new Little Sioux team Lac qui Parle Valley (3-5), which also has won three of its last four after opening the season 0-4.
MACCRAY plays host to No. 6-seed Ortonville (4-4) to open section play while LQPV travels to play No. 4-seed Canby (3-5).
Section 3 Nine-Man
No. 7 Hancock (1-7) and No. Renville County West (1-7) got late-season wins to pump a little excitement into two programs that have fallen on tough times the last few years.
The Owls defeated Hillcrest Lutheran 6-0 on Oct. 11, their first competitive victory in 36 games. RCW defeated Southwestern United 41-22 on Wednesday to end a 23-game losing skid that dated back to Sept. 2011.
But this week likely signals the end of both teams’ seasons: RCW gets defending Nine-Man state champion and section top-seed Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley (8-0), and Hancock opens against the section’s No. 2 seed, Mountain Lake (8-0).
EDITOR’S NOTE: All the first-round games start at 7 p.m., except for RCW which plays at 3 p.m. in Graceville and KMS which plays at 3:30 p.m.