“This won’t be the same type of ballgame,” Firebirds senior linebacker Jacob Asbeck said. “We’re changing some stuff up — I bet they’re changing some stuff up. It’ll be a dogfight, nonetheless.”
Princeton beat Lakota West 18-3 on Aug. 25 in what would turn out to be the Firebirds’ last loss. Lakota West (10-2) is riding a 10-game winning streak, while the Vikings (12-0) are winners of 12 straight.
“We’re a different team than when we played them in Week 2,” Firebirds coach Tom Bolden said. “I’m sure they are as well. We’re a little bit different in terms of personnel wise more than they are. They’re pretty consistent with who they were in Week 2.”
The defense has been on point for Lakota West all season. It was the offense that had a question mark early on.
While the Firebirds were in the midst of freshening up its offensive line, the quarterback situation was in limbo.
“That’s the key about this year. We were in a spot with some new O-linemen and whoever the new quarterback was going to be — whether it was going to be one of the older guys or one of the younger guys,” Bolden said. “I knew it was going to be rough sledding for us just with how the front end of our schedule was loaded. I knew it was going to be difficult for us, but I knew we would get better from it. We’ve gotten better each week. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that. Fortunately, here we are talking about a Week 13 game.”
It wasn’t until after that Princeton defeat when the Firebirds found their signal caller.
Junior Sam Wiles has since started all 10 of Lakota West’s victories — throwing for 1,015 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushing for 490 yards and six scores on the ground. Wiles rushed for 125 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the Firebirds’ 24-14 playoff win over Elder last week.
“Obviously that was really early in the year, and we still had some stuff to figure out,” Wiles said. “As a team, we’ve come along great. We’ve really come to bond with each other. We’re all on the same page. It’s almost like twins — when they say they have connected minds. We’re all on one mind with this team. We’re all just a brotherly bunch.
“It’s good knowing that we’re all going to be at 100 percent,” Wiles added. “We’re all going to be able to show our best — give it our all. We know if we lose this, we’re going home. We know that we don’t want to be the ones going home.”
Complimenting a Lakota West offense that’s now scored 31.8 points a game is a defense allowing just 7.5 points a contest. Junior linebacker Grant Beerman has a team-high 65 tackles, followed by junior linebacker Micah Markley with 52 and Asbeck 51.
“We’ve built towards this every week,” Beerman said. “Going off of that loss against Princeton has built us to be a better team. We’ve learned from it, and that’s because of our leaders. We hope to continue that trend.
“What a better way to play them in Round 3 of the playoffs. Win or go home.”
Princeton’s high-powered offense is backed by junior quarterback Deangelo Birch, who operates a consistent scheme. The Vikings got 90 yards rushing and three touchdowns from sophomore running back David Hambrick and did enough offensively to beat Hamilton 31-14 last week.
“They’re here for a reason. They’re undefeated They’re a really good football team,” Wiles said. “They’re making plays when they need to. They’re moving the ball.”
Wiles said he saw a select few snaps in the previous meeting but knows the Vikings’ defense is playing well having just given up 10.3 points a game all season.
“They’re athletic as ever — able to get the rush in with their blitzes,” Wiles said. “They’re obviously good at coverage.”
Princeton’s pass rush is no secret — led by junior linebacker PJ Nelson (11 sacks) and senior end Gino Nesmith (seven sacks).
“It’s Week 13. It’s a great feeling,” Wiles said. “Now it’s all about looking ahead and focusing on the task at hand. Princeton is a tough opponent — a tough matchup. They’re clicking, we’re starting to click with some big wins. We’re in the right mental spot and the right physical spot, too.”
Lakota West has won three out of the last four meetings against Princeton, which last loss to the Firebirds, 35-0, in the 2022 playoffs.
“This one is the one to win,” Bolden said. “This is why you work so hard — it’s to be in this position. It makes it that much sweeter, one, to be in this position to play in the regional semifinals. Two, it’s great to play a team that beat you early on. It helps with motivation, for sure. There’s no doubt about that. Playing in the regional finals is enough motivation itself, but this just adds a little something extra to it for the kids.”