On the run to back-to-back state trips

Wabasso’s Cooper Taylor (43) takes the ball up field against Ada-Borup/Norman County West on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium.

WABASSO — Joe Kemp took over as the head coach of the Wabasso football program in 2005 after being an assistant for the program since 1999. It didn’t take him long to become one of the more successful coaches in southwest Minnesota, leading the program to winning seasons year after year and a few state tournament trips sprinkled in along the way.

But the Rabbits had one of their more incredible runs from 2016-17, where they went a combine 24-3 under Kemp. They made it to the state championship game in 2017, losing to Minneota 28-13 in the championship game. One year before that, they went 11-2, losing to Minneapolis North in the state semifinals.

The Rabbits have long been a Class A power. The tradition that Kemp and the coaches before him set carries on to this day as the Rabbits are on their way to what appears to be another successful season.

A running attack

Kemp makes it no secret that he plans to run the ball and use a dominant offensive line to do so. The Rabbits have had a history of strong offensive line play, which is one of the things that Kemp is most proud of.

Wabasso’s Nick Altermatt throws it out for a wide receiver screen during the first quarter of a state semifinal game on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium.

In 2016, the Rabbits had Jared Welch at fullback and Mitchell Fulton at tailback. Fulton ran for 2,254 yards and 31 touchdowns and was up for Mr. Football that year. Welch tallied 10 touchdowns and 677 yards and quarterback Nick Altermatt ran for 15 scores and 611 yards to go along with his 870 yards passing and six touchdowns in the air.

“Our bread and butter is our power game,” Kemp said. “I make no secret about it, I’m going to try and come off tackle against you. Our kids enjoy hitting people and they enjoy the contact of the sport, that makes a difference. If you’re planning on deep runs (in the playoffs), you better be able to run the football. That’s one thing that stays in Minnesota forever, you can watch teams chuck it around, but when it comes down to it, you need to run it.”

The team has a strength program in place that sees them get up and get to the weight room early in the morning. Of course, in order to be successful, all of the players have to be on board with this. And they are.

“Cody Kittelson, he came here four years ago as our defensive co-ordinator, and he put together a fantastic weight program and speed program,” Kemp said. “We have a 100 plus kids sign up for the summer, they come at 5 a.m. and they bought into it. We’ve had these kids that have been in state tournaments and they’ve been in big games. We won’t back away from anybody and they’re not afraid of the moment.”

With Altermatt at quarterback, the Rabbits had their leader and top athlete that they could depend on.

Kyle Jacobson plunges into the end zone for Wabasso in the second half on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017 in Minneapolis.

“He made me look really smart,” Kemp joked. “When you have a kid like that, he started four years for us, he was one of those kids that was physically big enough (as a freshman). He’s just one of those kids that can pick something up and always do it well. He had a big enough arm that he could reach the receivers on the deep balls and he could get the hard yards. He was a tremendous leader and he comes from a tremendous family that instilled that toughness. He’s probably one of the better athletes that we’ve ever had in Wabasso.”

The taste of winning

“We lost the opening game to Minneota, but I think what made that year special was we brought back a ton of kids from the year before,” Kemp said. “The year before, I think we kind of peaked a little early, finished the year 7-3, got to the section semifinals and we just got pounded by BOLD. But we had a small senior class, maybe three or four seniors, and they kind of got that taste of winning.”

The Rabbits did get that taste of winning in their mouths in 2015 and that salivated in their mouths the entire offseason. They gained a year of experience, got bigger and faster. And in 2016, it was a more confident group.

However, they met Minneota in Week 1, a program that has set the standard for success in Class A. The Rabbits lost Altermatt in that game and they lost the opening game of the season to arguably their biggest rivals in the section that year.

“Nick Altermatt got hurt, we were leading late in the fourth quarter and going down to put the game away and we fumbled the exchange down at Minneota’s 25-yard line and one of their lineman picked it up and ran it all the way back to our 3. So we lost. I think that gave us the confidence to play with people and from then we just got better each week.”

The Rabbits did in fact get better each week. They closed out the regular season with a 7-1 mark and eventually got their rematch with Minneota.

There, the Rabbits, who were the No. 3 seeded, ended Minneota’s 36-game winning streak with a lopsided win. After that, they beat BOLD (the No. 3-ranked team in the state) for the section championship to qualify for the state quarterfinals.

In the quarterfinals, the Rabbits defeated Braham to advance to the semifinals, where they met Minneapolis North. North ended Wabasso’s season with a 16-8 victory over the Rabbits, but there was more to come in from that talented junior class.

“We always try to just get better every practice, we spent a lot of time talking about how we had a lot of time to play together,” Kemp said. “We wanted to make it make it special (for 2017), we didn’t talk about the expectations, we just wanted to get better. We knew that if this group continued to get better, we would be very good. We had that special group of juniors, I started youth tackle football when those guys were in fourth grade and those guys all played and they stayed with it the whole time.”

A run to the 2017 title game

Even with a four-year starter at quarterback in Altermatt, the Rabbits remained run heavy again in 2017. There, they went from Fulton to Cooper Taylor, who played receiver the year before. In 2017, Taylor rushed for 36 touchdowns and 2,153 yards. Altermatt had 791 yards rushing and 13 and 1,315 yards passing and he threw for 10 touchdowns. Kyle Jacobson, the fullback, had 640 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. Once again, there was no stopping the ground game that Wabasso brought. In 2016, they rushed for 4,070 yards and they ran for 4,299 yards in 2017.

Taylor’s speed was always a threat on the field and he followed his blockers well, which made him even more dangerous.

“A lot of times you’ll have these first-year backs that’ll want to pop it outside because they see daylight and it never ends very well,” Kemp said. “Cooper had a few games early when he was a JV running back, he would try to pop out and try to outrun everyone and I told him that’s not going to work at the varsity level.

“When you go back and look at the film, Cooper Taylor had tremendous feet. He would get in that hole and he could jump cut better than anybody I’ve ever had. He would be patient and all of a sudden he would jump cut and he was gone. He was a very patient runner but he had tremendous feet.”

The Rabbits cruised through the regular season unbeaten and once again advanced to the state tournament. But at the end of the road was their old, familiar foe in Minneota. There, the Vikings got the best of the Rabbits in the title game with a 28-13 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“I have the most respect for (Minneota coach) Chad Johnson and what he does and his head coaching staff,” Kemp said. “It’s always an intellectual battle and a physical battle. Minneota is the Class A football power and you strive to compete with those people.”

Kemp said that the fans have always supported the football program.

“We really pump that competition part to death here,” Kemp said. “I’ll also say we have a special town and they’ll come out and watch. We’ve had some years where we’ve been down, but we still draw well. Our community expects us to compete, and they’re going to come out and support us.”


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