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Prep football: MIB rallies for first state championship in 50 years

The Rangers overcame five turnovers — including three in the first half — to come back from 11 down in the fourth quarter for the Minnesota IX-Man title.

Spring Grove, Mountain Iron-Buhl State Football Championship
Mountain Iron-Buhl celebrates after the team won the state IX-Man football championship game against Spring Grove on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Traci Westcott / Rochester Post-Bulletin
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MINNEAPOLIS — Mountain Iron-Buhl’s Damian Tapio took a direct snap in the Minnesota IX-Man championship game Saturday and picked his way 10 yards through the Spring Grove defense to give the Rangers their first lead with 25 seconds to play.

The Rangers held the Lions on the ensuing drive, forcing an incompletion by Lions quarterback Elijah Solum and taking their first state championship since 1972 with a 28-25 win.

MIB ran for 210 yards, led by quarterback Asher Zubich’s 136. Tapio rushed for 97 yards and both the Rangers’ scores on the ground.

Tapio said he only felt one thing when he crossed the goal line: “stress relief.”

Spring Grove, Mountain Iron-Buhl State Football Championship
Mountain Iron-Buhl’s Damian Tapio (21) scores a touchdown during the state IX-Man football championship game against Spring Grove on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Traci Westcott / Rochester Post-Bulletin

“All my stress was gone out there,” he said. “It’s just a great feeling scoring the game-winning touchdown in the state championship game.”

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Any chance of a state championship was in serious doubt after a disastrous first quarter for MIB. Spring Grove took the opening kick and marched the ball 77 yards, capped by a 5-yard scoring run by Solum.

Tapio fumbled on the Rangers’ opening drive and Solum made it 14-0 with a 43-yard touchdown pass on the next play.

A few minutes later, MIB finally stopped the Lions, but Gallus Colton muffed the punt and set Spring Grove up on the Rangers’ 20-yard line. Hunter Holland made it 19-0 on a 12-yard run two plays later.

Zubich threw an interception with three seconds left in the quarter, but left Spring Grove deep in its own territory. The Rangers forced the Lions to punt again, setting MIB up at the Spring Grove 41.

Spring Grove, Mountain Iron-Buhl State Football Championship
Mountain Iron-Buhl’s Asher Zubich (2) runs the ball taken down by Spring Grove’s Zach Brumm (28) during the state IX-Man football championship game on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Traci Westcott / Rochester Post-Bulletin

The Rangers spent almost all of the second quarter on Spring Grove’s side of the field. Tapio scored from 11 yards out to get MIB on the board and Zubich found Nik Jesch with time running out in the half to make the score 19-14.

The Lions had several chances to put the game away in the second and third quarter, but just couldn’t make the plays.

“We lulled ourselves to sleep a little bit, I feel like we took our foot off the gas pedal a little bit,” Spring Grove’s Ty Cleven said. “We just didn’t get back to what we need to get back to.”

After Spring Grove’s first two scores, the MIB defense stiffened and the Lions’ last two scoring drives consisted of 20 and 24 yards. Rangers coach Dan Zubich said it was more a matter of execution than making a change defensively.

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“I don’t know if they were awake yet,” coach Zubich said. “We were leaving one guy unblocked on offense in the first half. On defense, it was the same thing, they were in the wrong spots. If you’re in the right spots, but sometimes at the beginning you’re too amped up, even with a veteran crew like this one. Once we rectified that we were good to go.”

Spring Grove led 25-14 going into the fourth quarter, but after MIB stopped the Lions on a fourth down, Zubich found Riley Busch for a 63-yard score.

Spring Grove, Mountain Iron-Buhl State Football Championship
Spring Grove’s Jaxon Strinmoen (7) intercepts a pass intended for Mountain Iron-Buhl’s Cooper Salinas during the state IX-Man football championship game on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Traci Westcott / Rochester Post-Bulletin

MIB was driving for a potential go-ahead score, but Jaxon Strinomen picked off Zubich in the end zone.

“With that last one, I thought that was going to be it,” coach Zubich said. “But I told them, ‘Get the ball back, we will score.’”

With Spring Grove trying to milk the clock, the Lions rushed Solum on five of six plays. Facing a third-and-10, Solum launched a pass that was picked off by MIB’s Micaden Clines — his second interception of the fourth quarter — setting up Tapio’s heroics.

Spring Grove, Mountain Iron-Buhl State Football Championship
Mountain Iron-Buhl’s Micaden Clines (6) intercepts a pass intended for Spring Grove during the state IX-Man football championship game on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Traci Westcott / Rochester Post-Bulletin

Zubich said it definitely looked bad early, but his team kept “fighting like hell” and kept themselves in the game.

“A lot of people don’t even get a chance to play this game and we took it as the chance of a lifetime,” Zubich said. “We told ourselves before the game, we told ourselves it was going to be rough, there were going to be lots of downs — probably more downs than ups — but we turned it into an up. We had pride, we had heart and we just kept fighting.”
With the first state title in 50 years, the Rangers have reached a level they had only dreamed about just a few hours earlier.

“For us — speaking as a team — that team was our idol,” Zubich said. “We looked back on them, after every practice we mentioned their name, that ‘72 team. That just shows that 50 years from now, we’ll still be talked about.”

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Spring Grove, Mountain Iron-Buhl State Football Championship
Mountain Iron-Buhl’s Asher Zubich (2) reacts after the team won the State IX-Man football championship game against Spring Grove on Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Traci Westcott / Rochester Post-Bulletin

Mountain Iron-Buhl 0-14-0-14—28

Spring Grove 19-0-6-0—25

SG — Elijah Solum 5 run (Caleb Griffin kick)

SG — Tysen Grinde 43 pass from Solum (kick failed)

SG — Hunter Holland 14 run (run failed)

MIB — Damian Tapio 11 run (Tapio run)

MIB — Nik Jesch 12 pass from Asher Zubich (pass failed)

SG — Solum 12 run (pass failed)

MIB — Riley Busch 63 pass from Zubich (pass failed)

MIB — Damian Tapio 10 run (Busch pass from Zubich)

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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