State football: Savion Hart runs wild as St. Thomas Academy downs Owatonna in Class 5A quarterfinals

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Winning the Class 5A state championship this season will likely entail stopping — or at least slowing down — St. Thomas Academy star senior running back Savion Hart and the Cadets’ potent rushing attack. Owatonna couldn’t do it Saturday in Woodbury.

Hart ran for five scores — pushing his total for the year to 34 — as the Cadets downed the Huskies 46-28 in a Class 5A quarterfinal bout.

St. Thomas Academy wide receiver Luke Dobbs (11) catches a pass over Owatonna defensive back Owen Beyer in the second half of a Class 5A quarterfinal game in the State Football Tournament at Woodbury High School in Woodbury on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. St. Thomas Academy won 46-28. (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)

Cadets coach Travis Walch believes slowing his team’s running game will be a tall task for any opponents generally unfamiliar with the Cadets’ offense.

“I think when you ask a lot of coaches, ‘Why is it tough to defend STA?’ They’ll say, ‘My gosh, they’ve run 22 formations this year,’ ” Walch said in a phone intervew. “I’m so proud of our coaching staff when you talk about the offensive side. When it comes down to it, we don’t do a lot scheme-wise, but we do a lot with formations and motions. And if you’re not lined up in the right gap because it’s a formation you’ve never seen, that’s all we need to give Savion that crease on top of a really good o-line and some tight ends. It just makes it really, really tough.”

“I’ve been on the defensive side of the ball, I would love to see a team that only runs four formations. But you just don’t know what we’re going to come out in each week, and I think that’s the real challenge.”

Owatonna certainly didn’t have any answers Saturday, as Hart ran for two touchdowns in the game’s first seven minutes to stake St. Thomas Academy to a 15-0 advantage. Owatonna was never dead, as the Huskies (8-3) moved the ball offensively. Jacob Ginskey threw three touchdown passes, including two to Nolan Ginskey.

But St. Thomas Academy’s defense made enough plays to constantly keep Owatonna at an arm’s length. The Cadets forced at least four turnovers, while committing none. That’s the thought for St. Thomas Academy’s defense this season: Find a way. While the offense returned nearly everyone from last season, the defense essentially started from scratch, from personnel to scheme.

“It’s apples and oranges when it comes to why is our offense where it’s at and why is our defense where it’s at,” said Walch, who’s in his first season at the helm. “And don’t get me wrong, we work every week to get finer and better at all the little things.”

But, given the offense’s potency, an opportunistic defense is still a very complimentary unit.

St. Thomas Academy players celebrate with their fans after defeating Owatonna 46-28 in a Class 5A quarterfinal game in the State Football Tournament at Woodbury High School in Woodbury on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)

“If we can do that, we can beat anyone. We don’t care who it is,” Walch said. “I’m sure Owatonna is sick right now knowing, ‘Minus, turnovers, we’ve got a shot.’ But it’s part of the game. And we take great pride and we spend a lot of time on tackle turnover throughout the week.”

St. Thomas Academy (9-2) will meet Alexandria (11-0) in the state semifinals at 2 p.m. Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Alexandria beat Rogers 38-14 in its quarterfinal Saturday.

Next week will mark the Cadets’ first trip to downtown Minneapolis since 2019. St. Thomas Academy fell in the state quarters each of the past two seasons, and there was no 2020 state tournament because of COVID-19. So next week will mark the first appearance for these Cadets on the state’s grandest stage.

“When you come to St. Thomas Academy in ninth grade, and you choose to come here, the thought is you’re going to end up at the Bank. And not only because of COVID, but also because of not being able to win the last two years, yeah, we had kids on the sideline crying,” Walch said. “I think about all the people that don’t get this, yeah, they’re big-time excited, and they need to be. Because this is why they choose St. Thomas Academy. … This is the mission of the school. We want to be great academically. We’re going to prep you for college. But, make no mistake about it, we want to win championships.”

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