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John Larson has been such a dominant force quarterbacking the UMD Bulldogs into football prominance - if not dominance - that nobody stopped to wonder what the Bulldogs would do without him.
Injuries to quarterbacks have become an annual happening at UMD the last couple years, and in fact that’s how Larson got his chance to take the job as a freshman a year ago. But despite his unbelievable play, leading the team in rushing by about a mile, as well as passing to every available receiver, Larson was not a cinch to be the starter to open the season.
Now, unfortunately, we’ll get the chance to find out how good the Bulldogs can be without Larson, who went down with a wrenched leg early in the second quarter against Southwest Minnesota State at Malosky Stadium. It was UMD’s homecoming, and by polishing off Southwest, the Bulldogs rose to 7-0 atop their Northern Sun division, as they head off to Winona State this Saturday.
Larson ran in for the only touchdown of the first quarter against Southwest Minnesota State, and when he went down under a tangle of defenders early in the second, he had copleted 6-8 passes for 65 yards along with running in for the short plunge - a 1-yard touchdown after he had fired a third-and-9 spiral that hit fellow-sophomore Johnny McCormick in stride up the left sideline for a 39-yard gain.
As quick as the Bulldogs were in dominating Southwest, the only thing quicker was how swiftly the medical team reached Larson when he went down, and he headed for the locker room at halftime on crutches.
It may be that the spotlight shining so brightly on Larson made UMD fans forget about Mike Rybarczyk, a junior who actually won the starting job a year ago before being injured. Rybarczyk came in and took off running and passing like he had never missed a beat.
Rybarczyk was 10-13 passing for 97 yards and a touchdown, but he also ran 13 times for 111 yards. But several other Bulldogs jumped up and contributed greatly.
Freshman Wade Sullivan scampered 35 yards up the right sideline for a touchdown to double the score from 7-0 to 14-0 early in the second quarter, and he gained 55 yards in five carries, scoring a second touchdown after the Mustangs cracked the UMD defense for a TD, so it was 21-6 at halftime.
Sullivan opened the second half by catching a 14-yard touchdown pass from Rybarczyk, then when the UMD defense swarmed in for a sack of senior Blake Gimbel at midfield, senior cornerback Mitchell Martin-Johnson grabbed the loose ball and took off, sprinting 50 yards right toward the pep band and looking like he might be headed for Tavern on the Hill. He settled for a touchdown that made it 35-6.
With a week to prepare, Rybarczyk is a perfect fit for the UMD offense, virtually duplicating the outstanding running and passing that Larson displayed while leading the Bulldogs to the top. Winona State, however, is always a tough challenge for UMD in football, especially at Winona.
UMD stays on the road next week, going to Minnesota-Crookston, then finishes at home against Mary and Northern State the first two Saturdays in November, But right now, the Bulldogs are 7-0. They overcame the devastating loss of receiver Jason Balts to start the season, and now Larson is out. But coach Curt Wiese has assembled a deep and talented outfit, and they are hurtling toward the division title and an NCAA berth.
BULLDOGS SWEEP WARRIORS, PEACOCKS
The UMD volleyball team overcame a knee injury to star senior kill-shot artist Sarah Kelly a month ago, and after taking it easy and resting her knee, Kelly is back in the lineup. And then some.
When the Bulldogs swept a rebuilding Winona State outfit 3-0, Kelly was her usual stabilizing self with 14 kills. That matched sophomore Kate Berg for the team lead, but the 25-13, 25-17, 25-16 sweep was a team performance as several players who don’t often get into the limelight contributed great efforts.
Keena Seiffert, for example, a junior, was singled out by coach Jim Boos for her digs. The players, mostly in the back row, are left trying to return those bullets that are blasted past the front-row blockers. Senior Makenzie Morgen is a stalwart at that, and had 15 digs, which are both blocks and playable returns, and the mercurial Berg added 8, but Seiffert had 28 digs.
That was on Friday night, and the UMD volleyball team made their bid on Saturday’s actual Homecoming day, beating Upper Iowa 25-17, 25-23, and 25-23 - a 3-0 victory that obviously was a tough match against a skilled foe. The Peacocks - are there really any peacocks in Upper Iowa? - got 17 kills in the three sets from junior Anna Winter, but no other Peacocks got more than 7.
Sarah Kelly, flying high again, led UMD with 16 kills and added 6 digs, while Berg had 10 kills and 13 digs, supported by Hanna Meyer with 9 kills, Abby Thor with 8 kills, Morgen with 7, and 13 digs, Emily Torve with 6 kills, and Keena Seiffert, who had no kills, but 17 digs.
Kelly said afterward that she feels 100 percent, and has no pain from her knee injury, “but it took a while to get my touch back,” she said. With 30 kills in the last two matches, it appears her touch is just fine. Just in time, too, because the Bulldogs have their next four matches on the road, but take a 12-2 NSIC record, and 19-4 overall, to Mankato, Concordia, Northern State, and Minnesota State-Moorhead.