Knight playoff run 28 years in the making

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By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

    It’s been 28 long years since the Fremont-Mills football team could call itself a playoff team.
    After Friday night, for just the second time in school history, the Knights can once again call themselves playoff bound.

    This season’s Knights, 9-0 and ranked No. 9 in the state, have mowed through opponents with a physical run game and a rugged, attacking defense that has outscored opponents 497 to 103 this season. Friday’s regular-season finale, a 56-20 win over an East Mills’ squad also headed to the playoffs was typical for the Knights this season. Fremont-Mills ran for 370 yards in the win and held the Wolverines without  a single first quarter first down.
    Nearly three decades ago, another Knight team stormed through its district. The 1982 Knights, coach by Dave Huff, and his senior-laden, 23 man squad went 8-1 that season, won the Corner Conference, outscored opponents 260 to 98, and qualified for the Class A State Playoffs for the first time in school history.
    Huff, who coached Fremont-Mills from 1981 to 1985, agreed that 1982 team was a special bunch.
    “That was a season that a lot of things happened right for us,” said Huff, who is currently the athletic director at Nodaway Valley High School. “We had a lot of returning starters from a team that finished 6-3 and a big, good senior class. Those seniors were nucleus of that team both years and they were a bunch of good athletes who played together a long time.”
    Of the Knights’ 23 varsity players that season, 15 were seniors. Most were two and three years starters, Huff said.
    Dan Blackburn was a 6-foot-3, 240 captain on that 1982 Knights’ team. Blackburn said the seniors were  tight-knit group that grew up playing together and were coming off a 6-3 junior season.
    “We were a team mainly filled with seniors,” said Blackburn, who teaches industrial technology at Sydney High School where he also coaches wrestling. “We had a bunch of good athletes that played hard.”
    Blackburn, along with senior quarterback Todd Hampton and senior linebacker/guard Jaime Bertelson captained the Knights that season.
    Blackburn credits a lot of that team’s camaraderie to its second-year head coach.
    “He was a good coach,” said Blackburn of Huff. “He brought us all together and made us a family,” Blackburn said of Huff. “All through the years we had different coaches until our junior and senior years, we had him for both years. And I think if he had been there earlier, with a little stability, we might have been better.”
    Huff agrees the seniors were a the nucleus of that team but he thinks it was the whole team that was pretty tight knit.
    “It went beyond the seniors,” said Huff. “All 23 guys were real close. The underclassmen fit in together good. They all played together since they were small fries. This was my second year around them and they were a good bunch of kids.”
    The 1982 Knights ultimately fell in their first round opener against highly-ranked Villisca, 27-14 to end their season. The game was played in freezing temperatures on a wintry cold night in November.
    “It was a blizzard and we didn’t play that well,” said Blackburn of the loss.
    In those days, only eight teams made the playoffs, meaning Huff knew if his team made the playoffs a match-up with the Bluejays was likely.
    “Villisca was a very good team and we had the honor of playing them in the first round,” said Huff. “We beat Malvern on  Friday to be co-champs of the Corner Conference and then we get Villisca and the weather decides to turn cold and nasty.
    “I think it was right at freezing at game time. We were the kind of team that had to throw the ball to loosed up teams to be effective and move the ball and it’s kind of hard to throw the ball in that cold. Not to make excused because they were a better team than us that night, but I would have liked to play them in some better weather.”
    But Blackburn doesn’t remember that particular game in Villisca or that he had 15 tackles in the playing nearly every snap in the game, as much as he does the season as a whole.
    “I just remember being around the guys and the success we had together,” he said.
    Huff said it’s a little surprising its been 28 years since the Knights have been back to the playoffs.
    “I know they had a couple years where they had some good teams but just couldn’t quite make the playoffs,” he said. “It’s a neat thing those kids are having success and I’m sure the whole town is behind them.”