“This one is right up there with them,” Bolden said. “I’m sure if you asked last year’s guys, they’d say it, too. But listen, when you’re playing this well, go ahead. When you’re talking the talk, you’re going to have to be able to walk the walk — and they walk it. I’m OK with it.”
The Firebirds forced two interceptions — both grabbed by junior Finn Mason who returned one for a score — turned Princeton over on downs four times and didn’t allow a point after the first quarter in their 19-7 playoff win a week ago.
“We knew what we were playing for. We knew who we were going up against,” said Cam Thomas, a sophomore linebacker. “It was more to us than just a game. We knew we had to lock in and basically do what we had to do.”
The third-seeded Firebirds, winners of 11 straight, take the momentum into their Division I, Region 4 against the fifth-seeded Moeller Crusaders on Friday at Mason’s Atrium Stadium.
Lakota West (11-2) is 1-3 against Moeller (9-4) since 2006, including consecutive losses in the regional finals each of the last two seasons.
“We know what we’ve got to do,” Davis said. “I feel like this team has been coming together. I feel like this is one of the best defenses — and to be honest — the best defense Lakota West has ever had. I feel like we all play as a team, communicate and talk.”
Aside from the shortened COVID season in 2020 when Lakota West gave up an average of 5.6 points in nine games, the Firebirds are playing their best defense in over a decade.
Lakota West, which has given up just 7.5 points a contest in 2023, will play in its fourth consecutive regional final.
“It’s been all year. It’s what we’ve hung our hat on is our defense,” Bolden said. “My philosophy is that you load your team on defense. If you could pick one unit to be great at, it’s your defense. Then you should be able to find a way to score points.”
The Firebirds scored 16 unanswered to seal their regional semifinal win against the Vikings, while the Crusaders steamrolled Mason 38-3 to get to this point.
Moeller sophomore quarterback Matt Ponatoski threw for 298 yards and a career-best five touchdowns against the Comets.
Michigan commit and senior running back Jordan Marshall has rushed for 1,369 yards and 15 scores this season, and he’s caught 24 passes for 333 yards and five TDs.
“I’ll probably be the happiest dude to see Jordan Marshall graduate,” Bolden said. “We’ll all say, ‘Thank God that kid is graduating.’”
Senior linebacker Kyler Paul leads Moeller, the Greater Catholic League South champion, with 96 total tackles.
“The last couple of years, we just haven’t been able to get past them. They’ve been really good,” Bolden said. “They’ve just made more plays than we have. Last year, they ran the ball right down our throats, and that left a bad taste in our mouth all year. I think that helps drive this defense.”
Moeller rushed for 343 yards to beat Lakota West 38-20 in last year’s regional final, and Marshall had 165 of those and two scores.
“We can’t be taking anything for granted right now,” Davis said. “Any day could be my last day. We have to keep working hard. We have to go hard at practice every day — just go like there’s no tomorrow.”
“It’s an awesome feeling to be here four years in a row,” Bolden added. “That’s pretty darn impressive in of itself. We just want to take that next step. I keep using the phrase with the boys, ‘Let’s kick in the door.’”