Watching No. 1-ranked Totino-Grace operate is a bit like watching winter arrive.
It's coming, taking its time but never stopping. It will eventually take over and there is nothing that can be done to stop it.
Such was the Eagles' 23-0 victory over Bemidji in Saturday's Class 5A semifinals. The defense set the tone, making Bemidji work for every yard. The offense, with a slew of running backs who never move backward, had its moments. And, just when it seemed like the Eagles might be vulnerable, they rose up and smacked the upstarts in the mouth.
"That's the way this team plays," senior nose tackle Joey Schiller said. "We have total confidence in each other. Someone is going to make the play when we need it."
Totino-Grace scored first on a 27-yard field goal by Jackson Richards on its opening drive.
Bemidji, which shocked then-No. 1 Mankato West in the 2011 Class 4A semifinals, tried to match the Eagles, but an exhausting 11-play drive that reached midfield came apart when Totino-Grace defensive back Carlton Djam picked off Bemidji quarterback James Hendricks and returned the ball to the Bemidji 30. Two plays later, Eagles quarterback A.J. LaPanta hit Charlie Miller for a 22-yard touchdown.
Just like that, Totino-Grace led by 10 points. And the way the Eagles' defense was playing, it might as well have been 100.
"We were really physical," Eagles coach Jeff Ferguson said. "I mean, you saw it. There were guys flying all over."
If the game harbored any doubt, that was removed on the Eagles' opening drive of the second half. Moving relentlessly downfield, LaPanta found Miller for a 5-yard touchdown pass and a 17-0 lead. The drive that sent a message to Bemidji that the second half would be just as difficult at the first.
"We're not a big-strike team," Ferguson said. "We don't have a guy that can go the distance a bunch of times. We take chunks of the field."
The Lumberjacks would struggle to reach midfield -- they didn't cross the Totino-Grace 40-yard line until late in the fourth quarter -- only to be knocked back and have to start over again.
The Eagles (12-0) put the game out of reach -- as if it wasn't already -- when LaPanta threw his third touchdown pass, a 54-yard strike to sophomore Lance Benick at the start of the fourth quarter. Bemidji mounted one last drive, but Totino-Grace turned them back on the 3, shutout intact.
"It's great watching the defense play," LaPanta said. "If we don't make a ton of mistakes, they'll win us ballgames. And they have this year."