PINE RIDGE—A hot August afternoon is not ideal football weather, and neither was a trip south to play a team that had beaten Lead/ Deadwood Head Coach Tom Tiezen’s Diggers every year since he took the job four seasons back. It came down to the last three seconds, but with a strong wind at his back, Pablo Munoz Fraga, a 5-11, 155 lbs. senior, booted a clutch 45- yard field goal to defeat the Red Cloud Crusaders, 19-16, in the opening game of the South Dakota 2018 football season.
“Those are guys I really wanted to beat,” Tiezen told his players in the post-game huddle. “They’re a great team, they’re well coached, they got good players, you guys did what you needed to do—guys stepped up.”
Russell Leader Charge, a running back of exceptional skill, had been the principal weapon that defeated tough Digger teams the last two years. But he was graduated last spring, and that left the Crusaders with two high quality weapons: senior quarterback Ale Rama (6-1, 180), and junior receiver Riyen Carlow (6-2, 170). Crusader Coach Duane Big Crow would have to shape a team from the other players, and this was made more difficult by extenuating circumstance. During the summer it seemed Corey Brown, a powerful defensive lineman and pass rusher, would transfer over from Pine Ridge. This would have beefed up the suspect Red Cloud line play considerably. Instead, Brown stayed at Pine Ridge, and took tough, all-purpose defensive back and clutch receiver, Jesse Jensen with him.
Big Crow is used to wringing every drop of commitment and talent from his players. Two years ago, having just fourteen players, Big Crow went two games deep in the play offs, which is how he earned the respect from Tiezen.
As far as this game went, the clock broke down in the second half, so the officials were keeping the time on the field. Neither coach could manage time outs effectively because they were never sure how much time was left. When Tiezen found out there were three second left, with a tailwind, he got excited.
“(Munoz Fraga) had been making about fifty percent of his attempts in practice from that distance,” Tiezen said.
Big Crow’s predicament was just the opposite, he said the clock “really hurt us bad”: “When I looked at that clock, I saw 47 seconds left on there, and then I asked the official, is that the right time or not? I need to know right now if that’s the right time, so I can call time out. He says, I’ll run over and get the time—by the time he got back, he said, Coach, three seconds. I said, three seconds, I asked you for a time out down here! He should have called an official time out on that and came up and checked, which is what you’re supposed to do.”
The lost time prevented Red Cloud from responding to the field goal, and had there been 47 seconds, perhaps the Diggers would have opted to get the ball closer. Whatever the case, the kick was perfect, and proved the difference in an extremely hard fought game with a lot of punishing tackling.
Besides being the best runner and passer on the field, Rama is a terrific defender and one half of the punishing tackle equation this game. Twice he leveled Digger receivers who had actually caught the ball a second before his tackle separated them from it.
The other half of the equation was Zak Mau, a 6-2, 225 lbs. senior that gives Lead/Deadwood a dogged defender, particularly in pursuit, and a no-holds barred tackler, twice called for horse collar tackles on Rama in this game. Still, any team would rather have Mau on their team than playing against him. Tiezen: “We wanted to use (Zak) in the backfield more, but we lost one of our linemen, so he had to step up at lineman. Part of what made him successful is, one, he’s got a motor that doesn’t quit, and, two, our coverage was great this time. Defensive Coach (Mark) Jacobs did a great job. Last year, Red Cloud destroyed us with the pass, so we knew this year we had to stop that, and he did a good drawing up the scheme that gave Zak time to get (to Rama).”
Mau was able to run down the elusive, swifter Rama from behind several times.
Digger quarterback Max Johnson does not have the tools Rama has, but he was steady and productive, keeping his team close enough for the field goal to win it. Tiezen: “(Johnson’s) one of the best leaders on the team. Last year, our senior quarterback got hurt in the second game, and so he got to play most of the season last year as a sophomore. It’s led to him making great plays.”
Red Cloud’s running game, aside from QB keeps by Rama, according to Big Crow, was a disappointment: “We need to work on our running game. One back, he started getting cramps, the other, and missed about four or five days of practice and he didn’t know where the ball was going.”
Lead/Deadwood got some excellent running from Jordy Stulken, a 5-9, 150 lbs. junior. Tiezen: “Last year, (Stulken) was at receiver for us, but Red Cloud put Ale on him and shut him down, but this year, we kinds said, okay, how do we keep him from singling him out, so we moved him into the backfield, out to the receiver’s spot, and he’s done really well.”
But the biggest factor in the Lead/Deadwood win was how much they have matured since last season. “Disciplined,” Tiezen said. “We’re very disciplined. That’s something we been talking about, doing the right things when you’re tired. We might not have a big senior class, but those three seniors are dedicated and they absolutely love the sport, and they elevate everybody else with their gameplay.”
Red Cloud opened scoring early in the second quarter with a five yard pass from Rama to Carlow. Jhett Knight, a 5-8, 170 lbs. freshman ran in the twopoint conversion. Two minutes later Mau ran it in from a yard out, and Mau ran in the two-point conversion, although a photograph clearly indicates his elbow touched before reaching the end zone. Since they won by three, the extra two points didn’t prove the difference.
With 5:50 remaining in the third quarter, Johnson ran it in from 11 yards out. A pass from Stulken to Johnson on the two-point conversion made it, 16- 8, Lead/Deadwood. Red Cloud wasted no time tying it back up, Rama hooking up with Carlow on a 62-yard TD pass that started as a 20-yard slant across the middle. Rama reversed his field to run in the twopoint conversion, 16-16, 5:12 remaining in the third, until the fateful field goal.
Stulken had 95 yards on 18 carries for the Diggers. Johnson added 51 yards on eight carries. Marshall Gibbons had 21 yards on eight carries for Red Cloud. Rama had 137 yards on 15 carries, 106 yards on five passes. Carlow had 20 yards rushing on two carries, and 106 yards on five receptions.
Lead/Deadwood is headed for Sundance, Wyoming next week, while Red Cloud drives two miles south to Pine Ridge to continue one of the biggest crosstown rivalries in the country. Pine Ridge won last year at Red Cloud, and Sam Bravo’s Thorpes again have a lot of talent and they are much bigger than the Crusaders.
(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)