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John’s Journal: Kingsland Is A Football Team On The Rise

Knights’ 51-Game Losing Streak Is Now Far In The Past

Posted: Thursday, November 16, 2023 - 8:14 PM


The Nevis offense lines up against the Otter Tail Central defense.




Byron coach Ben Halder.

For any team in any sport that’s ever been down in the dumps with seemingly little reason to be hopeful, take a look at the 2023 Kingsland High School football team. The Knights are having a dream season and will take a perfect record of 13-0 into the Nine-Player Prep Bowl championship game against Nevis on Nov. 25.

Their latest triumph came in Thursday’s state semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium, where they defeated Fertile-Beltrami 36-28.

Things, however, weren’t always so rosy and bright for Kingsland. Go back to the 2012 season … and keep going through the 2016 season. In fact, stretch your research into the 2017 season and realize this fact: The Knights did not win even one game in that span, losing 51 times in a row.

And here they are, playing for a state championship. Go figure.

“These guys have done everything,” said fourth-year head coach Matt Kolling. “The work they put in, the time they put in, their passion and love for the game, it is so fun to see them get this reward. It's so worth it.”

After ending the long losing streak in 2017 with a Week 8 victory over Hayfield, the Knights finished with a 1-8 record. They also went 1-8 in 2018 and 2019, and then 1-5 in the Covid-shortened 2020 season. The tide started to turn in 2021 when they finished 3-6, and in 2022 they climbed another step to a 4-5 finish.

Initially, the 2023 season didn’t look to be off to a great start. In the first game, Kingsland trailed Mabel-Canton 28-0 before rallying for a 40-34 win. And off they went, rolling through the year with scores like 63-21, 54-14, 57-0, 54-21, etc.

Coming out of always-tough Section 1 in southeast Minnesota, they defeated Lanesboro, Houston and Spring Grove in the section playoffs by a combined score of 135-42. The Knights outscored previously unbeaten Hills-Beaver Creek 26-14 in the state quarterfinals, setting up Thursday’s contest.

Kingsland ran for 416 yards against Fertile-Beltrami, with Beau Wiersma carrying 29 times for 297 yards and four touchdowns, and Kaaleem Reiland rushing 20 times for 115 yards. The Knights did not punt, which was no surprise considering that they have punted only six times all season.

Fertile-Beltrami (12-1) was no pushover opponent for Kingsland. The Falcons played at U.S. Bank Stadium for the third year in a row, with their best finish coming in 2021 when they lost in the Prep Bowl to LeRoy-Ostrander (also from Section 1).

No one will be surprised to see Fertile-Beltrami making noise in the future. With only two seniors (Derek Sorenson and Caiden Swenby) on this year’s 37-player roster, the tradition is strong.

“We've had a great group of kids here for five, six, seven years,” said 29-year Fertile-Beltrami coach Brian Nelson. “Hopefully kids don't take this for granted because it's not something just that happens all the time. This has been an incredible run.”

This is Kingsland’s fourth appearance in the state football playoffs, and they won state titles in the three prior trips. Those came in 1995, 2002 and 2003; Kolling was a member of the 1995 team.

“Sometimes it seems like it was yesterday and other days it seems like it was 150 years ago,” Kolling said. “But I still remember it like it was yesterday a lot of times, and these kids will do the same in 25, 30 years. There are memories that don't go away.”

A Big Day For Nevis

Six years ago the Nevis Tigers were the Nine-Player state runner-up, losing to Spring Grove in the Prep Bowl. There are photos of a bunch of little kids getting autographs from those players in 2017, and many of those kids are now on the varsity for the unbeaten Tigers.

Nevis returned to state this year for the first time since that historic run, and advanced to the Prep Bowl by defeating Otter Tail Central 35-0 Thursday. In the state quarterfinals last week they beat defending state champ Mountain Iron-Buhl 12-8.

“They were sitting there dreaming of being here, and they're here today,” said Nevis coach Shawn Klimek as he sat next to players Eli Lewis, Eli Klimek (his son) and Devan Lindow during a postgame interview session in the Vikings media room.

“Eli came down here and took a tour of U.S. Bank Stadium and he sat right here,” said Shawn. “It's been his lifelong goal to sit right here. These are special moments.”

Otter Tail Central, a cooperative team with students from Henning and Battle Lake, finished with a record of 11-1.

Byron’s Inspiration

After a defensive battle with Rocori that ended in a 7-0 loss for Byron in the Class 4A semifinals, Bears coach Will Halder was in a celebratory mood. Not because of the final score, of course, but because of what being together as a team all season has meant.

“It's not over,” Ben said. “We're going to go eat a team meal together one last time as a group, and these are the moments that high school sports are about, to be honest with you. I know we wanted to win a football game, I know Rocori wanted to win a football game. But for us to be able to go eat a meal together after a hard-fought battle; that's we've told the kids, this team will never be together again like this.

“And to get to have one last meal together and laugh and cry a little bit, it's worth it. It's what high school sports are about. It's what makes high school football so special, there's no other game like it and you can spend all 48 minutes giving everything you’ve got and still come up on the losing end, and have super big respect for teams like Rocori.”

Halder, in his eighth season as Byron’s head coach, is an inspirational figure. He lost his left leg below the knee in a 2005 automobile accident and has a prosthetic. He grew up in Lake City and played football at Minnesota State Mankato.

Bears senior Zachary Vanderpool said Halder inspires the team “Every single day. He’s always holding his head high and he sets a great example for all of us.”

Big Games Are Big News In Small Towns

We all know that the success of a team from a small town is big news in those places. Jackson County Central will meet Barnesville in Friday morning’s Class 2A semifinals, and here’s a Tweet that was posted Thursday by the Jackson County Pilot newspaper account, @PilotSports …

Places I’ve seen announce they’ll be open and showing the JCC football game Friday morning:

Dudley’s Garage

The Shed

Chill N Grill

Pillars Pub & Eatery

Santee Crossing

Places offering a fan bus:

Salem Lutheran Church

Countryside Plumbing & Heating


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