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 Playoff Preview

Class 3A Showdown:
Fairfield Mules vs. Breese Mater Dei Knights

By Randy Olson

When you reach the second round of the Class 3A playoffs (Sweet-16) you know your opponent is going to be good.  That’s the way it is supposed to be. This Saturday at 4:00pm, the Train Yard in Fairfield will play host to the #4 seeded Mules (10-0), and the #5 seeded Breese Mater Dei Knights (9-1).

The only blemish on the Knights schedule this year is a week one loss to Class 4A powerhouse Effingham (9-1), by a score of 32-28.  That tough Effingham team has advanced on to the Sweet-16 of 4A football after thrashing Breese Central 55-13 last weekend.  Breese Mater Dei enters the game at Fairfield with an impressive resume, having outscored their opponents 394-152.  Meanwhile, the Mules have outscored their ten opponents 433-46.  But, playing as an independent team with no conference affiliation, most people agree that the Knights have maneuvered their way through a stronger schedule than the Mules.  That's no knock on Fairfield, the Mules have played and beaten every team on their schedule, but the Black Diamond is a closed conference, so they don't get to play any non-conference games during the 9-week regular season.  For the Knights, every regular season game is non-conference.  They play whatever team they want to schedule. 

This season, Breese Mater Dei has wins over Belleville Althoff, Granite City, Freeburg, Quincy Notre Dame, Waterloo, St Louis Lutheran South, Breese Central, Alton Marquette, and West Frankfort.  Most of those schools have a larger enrollment than the 408 students enrolled at the Breese Catholic high school.  Fairfield has a similar enrollment of 424 students, although one can argue that there are no school district boundary lines at Mater Dei, so the talent pool has the potential to be much larger.  (That's a discussion for another day).

The Knights dominated West Frankfort in the opening round of the playoffs last week, by a score of 56-0.  The Redbirds were no slouch, coming out of the River-2-River Conference with a 6-3 record.  Mater Dei has played and beaten a common opponent in Alton-Marquette, during week two of the regular season, winning 28-10.  Perhaps that win was not as impressive as what Fairfield put up against the Explorers last week in the playoffs, but remember the Mater Dei game against Marquette was way back in week two. 

The match-up on Saturday at the Train Yard will feature a battle between the high-powered offensive attack of the Knights, clashing with the stingy defense of the Mules, who shut down the potent offense of Alton-Marquette last week in the playoffs, winning 36-8.

Mater Dei features a talented Quarterback in Reed Braundmeier (6-2, 190 lbs.), who has passed for a whopping 2,210 yards and 22 TD’s.  Although they love to operate in a spread offense, the Knights also have a juggernaut in the backfield, Zach Napovanice (5-11, 185 lbs.), who has rushed for 1,324 yards on 179 carries (7.4 yards average) and scored 18 TD’s.  Nolan Foppe (5-11, 175 lbs.) has rushed for 359 yards and 4 TD’s.   Statistically, Mater Dei averages 230 pass receiving yards per game, and 211 rushing yards per game, so you have to respect all of their athletes. 

Top receivers for Mater Dei include Mitchell Haake (6-5, 192 lbs), who has hauled in 39 receptions for 807 yards and 8 TD’s.  RB Zach Napovanice, comes out of the backfield for bubble screens, slants and traditional screen plays to grab 49 receptions for 572 yards and 6 TD’s.  Ben Kassen (6-3, 217 lbs.) is another popular target, hauling in 33 receptions for 555 yards and 5 TD’s. 

In their playoff win against West Frankfort last week, Mater Dei scored quickly, just two minutes into the game on a 4-yard run by Zach Napovanice.  Then on their second possession of the game, they went to the air and scored on a 46-yard touchdown pass from Reed Braundmeier to Mitchell Haake. A short time later, Braundmeier and Haake connected again for a 40-yard touchdown pass, giving the Knights a 21-0 lead with 2:16 left in the first quarter.

In the trenches, the Knights have some size on their line, anchored by Bennet Krebs (6-3, 286 lbs.), Blaize Schellenger (6-4, 260 lbs.), Tyler Timmerman (6-4, 245 lbs.), Nick Timmerman (6-4, 248 lbs.), and Avery Rudolphi (5-11, 245 lbs.).   On defense, their two leading tacklers are Nolan Foppe with 73 solo tackles and Bennet Krebs with 61 solo tackles. 

The Knights also have a very able-bodied kicker in Grant Cox, who routinely kicks extra points, and is very capable of making field goals as well.  He is responsible for scoring 42 points himself this season.

The Knights also made it to the second round of the playoffs last season.  They are coached by Jim Stiebel, who is in his 11th year at Mater Dei with a career record of 80-39.  The Knights have made the playoffs in ten of eleven years under his guidance. They are accustom to the playoff atmosphere.  NOTE:  All of their previous playoff appearances have been in Class 4A football.  In fact, the Knights actually reached the Final Four of the Class 4A football playoffs back in 2015.  It's a tradition-rich football program.

The Fairfield Mules have developed quite a football tradition of their own, having ripped through three straight undefeated 9-0 conference seasons.  Under coach Justin Townsend (111-75), the Mules have made the playoffs in 13 of 19 seasons during his tenure, including a streak of seven years in a row.  While it is true that a lot of publicity is given to Fairfield concerning their stingy defense, the Mules offense is also perhaps more potent than ever.  In fact, this season the Mules have proven to be just as lethal through the air, as they are on the ground.  QB Landon Zurliene connected with (5) different receivers last Saturday in their 36-8 win over Alton-Marquette.  The Mules churned out 401 yards of total offense, which is actually more than their season average of 290 yards rushing and 96 yards of passing per game. On the ground, the Mules have three excellent backs in Wyatt Gilbert (1,023 yards, 21 TD's), Kaleb Wells (657 yards, 6 TD's), and Cade Carter (494 yards, 11 TD's).  Zurliene has also proven that he also has the ability to run out of the QB position, having scored 3 TD's on the ground this season.

Mater Dei comes in as the #5 seed, and Fairfield is the #4 seed.  Kick-off is set for 4:00pm this Saturday at the Train Yard in Fairfield.  AreaSports.net will stream a pre-game, preview interview with Coach Justin Townsend of the Mules, this Saturday morning on “The Sports Couch” show beginning at 8:30am.  The winner of this game will meet the winner of #1 Beardstown versus #9 Quincy Notre Dame next weekend in the Elite-8.

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