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Smrekar, St. Mary's turn lost games into positives in the playoffs

Smrekar, St. Mary's turn lost games into positives in the playoffs


St. Mary's Chris Birnbaum (74) earned all-state honors in football as an offensive and defensive lineman.

St. Mary’s football team features a productive and successful senior class.

Unfortunately for the Saints upperclassmen, they got a little cheated this season.

Due to forces beyond their control, St. Mary’s played two fewer games than originally scheduled. The first due to weather (Devils Lake), the second because of a forfeit by Stanley, which did not field a team this season due to a lack of numbers. 

“I feel really bad for the seniors. They were very disappointed to lose those two games,” St. Mary’s head coach Dan Smrekar said. “These kids are football players. They want to play football. It’s just one of those fluky kind of deals where it ended up happening this way.”

The Saints did not sulk, however.

With an extra week to prepare, St. Mary’s blitzed Kindred in their Class AA quarterfinal game last Saturday, 42-0.

“I don’t know if fresh is the right word or not, but they were definitely hungry,” Smrekar said. “I think as coaches we were a little surprised by how that game went. We were very confident in our ability to win that game, but the score was not what we were expecting.

“What we were most happy with was that we put four full quarters of a game together. At times this season we’ve struggled with that.”

It’ll take nothing less than four good quarters on Saturday as the Saints (6-3) head to Hillsboro to face the No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Burros (10-0). The two teams played in Hillsboro on Sept. 13 with the home team winning, 20-7.

The Saints and Burros are meeting in the semifinals, one week before most preseason prognostications would have expected. But for either to get where they ultimately want to go, a postseason meeting was inevitable.

“Coming into the season I think this is probably the direction a lot of people thought it might go,” Smrekar said. “Hillsboro has a very good football team. This is a big challenge for us. But I’ll tell you what, our kids are excited for this game. They’re really looking forward to it.”

Being ready before the ball is booted at 2 p.m. on Saturday is key.

“We have to travel better and start off the game much better than we did the first time,” Smrekar said. “And the other thing is, for the great part of the (first) game, they controlled the line of scrimmage. We have to play better up front.”

St. Mary’s starting lineup has three senior two-way starters in Chris Birnbaum, Connor Puetz and Jaxon Wiseman.

Birnbaum, also a top swimmer in the state, has been invaluable in the trenches for the Saints.

“Chris has played every position on the offensive line for us and he’s a good defensive lineman too,” Smrekar said. “He’s been a really valuable kid in our program that last few years.”

Wiseman has 362 yards receiving and three touchdowns. He also ranks among the top defensive backs in Class AA. Puetz had a key interception in last week’s blowout win from his linebacker spot and also plays slotback on offense.

Senior Drew Dosch has accounted for 10 touchdowns – six through the air – and 1,060 yards, 766 passing. Dosch also handles punting duties.

Junior running back Cullen Curl has filled in admirably for injured senior standout tailback Joey Heinert. Curl has rolled up 832 yards and 15 TDs. He’s had plenty of help from Dosch and senior Mark Horner (34-228, 3 TDs).

Helping pave the way much of the time are seniors Colin McMerty, the Saints’ left guard, and tight end Lucas Haakenson.

“Colin McMerty is a two-year starter for us. He’s worked really hard to turn himself into a good lineman,” Smrekar said.

Cody Marohl, a senior defensive lineman, also has made big strides.

“Cody Marohl has gotten better every game,” Smrekar said. “He played his best game of the season on Saturday and that was huge for us.”

Michael Salwei, another senior, teams with Curl to form a strong pairing at the safety spots.

Puetz, and fellow senior Joseph Preszler, anchor the Saints’ 3-4 front at linebacker.

On special teams, the Saints also have a steady kicker in senior Adam Richter.

“Our senior class is a great group of kids. They’ve been fun to coach and they’ve made great contributions to some really successful football teams,” Smrekar said. “We’d sure like to have another week with them, but to do that, we’re going to have to play our best game of the season on Saturday.”

Reach Tribune sports editor Dave Selvig at (701) 250-8246 or


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