Westby-Grenora running back Kade Guenther avoids a tackle against Geraldine-Highwood. (Photo courtesy Andy Hannum)

The Westby-Grenora 6-Man football team has always featured a high-octane, spread-out-the-defense offensive attack under coach Troy Walters.

It’s a pass-first – and often second and third – offense that relies on the quarterback and receivers being in sync. During the summer and early fall practices, receivers train their eyes to track flying footballs in the daylight hours, only to play catch in games under the Friday night lights.

But the script flips in November. Practicing in Grenora, N.D., the team doesn’t hit the field until 5:30 p.m. (CT), when the sun is already setting. So now receivers are tracking balls under the lights during the practice week in preparation for Saturday’s afternoon 6-Man semifinal game against Bridger.

It’s a minor inconvenience for a team that wasn’t sure it would be playing this time of year.

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“We’re still alive, that’s all that matters,” Walters said. “We knew we were going to be ok, but I didn’t know if we would be this far, in the semifinals.”

The Thunder, who have never missed the 6-Man playoffs since co-opping in 2012, are back in the semifinals after a brief hiatus last year. Westby-Grenora advanced to the semifinals in 2013 and the championship in 2014 (a 37-20 loss at Geraldine-Highwood).

This year’s Thunder have won nine consecutive games, including last week’s 57-28 quarterfinal win over Geraldine-Highwood. Their only loss of the season was a 32-20 setback against Bridger in the first week of the season. The Scouts have since reeled off an undefeated season to march into the semifinals.

“It was a hell of a game,” Walters recalled of the teams’ first matchup this season. “It was a fun 6-Man football game. I can actually say it was a football game. People talk about 6-Man like it’s not really football; it’s all about basketball on grass. This was a football game.”

It was a back-and-forth game that was tied in the fourth quarter. Walters said Westby-Grenora turned it over twice while Bridger scored two touchdowns to make up the difference.

Bridger coach Mike Mathis pointed to that game earlier this year as a sign of the maturity of his team. But that was in August, and both teams have certainly matured throughout the season.

For the Thunder, it starts with seniors Daulton Holecek (running back/linebacker), Aaron Lagerquist (running back/linebacker), Kade Guenther (running back/linebacker) and Jeff Whitlow (offensive center/defensive tackle).

“We’re proud of them,” Walters said. “They wanted to win the (6-Man East) conference and they did. They just get after it in practice and learn and work hard. We have a lot of underclassmen that we play, so (the seniors) are good leaders.”

Guenther especially has come on strong over the past four weeks or so. He battled injuries earlier in the season, but got back to full health, not only improving his play but also that of his teammates around him, according to Walters.

Walters called Holecek his “go-to guy, coach on the field,” but the keys to the offense belong to Jeremiah Paine, the junior quarterback. Paine has passed for more than 2,000 yards and 42 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

“We kind of go as (Paine) goes,” Walters said. “When he’s having a good game, our offense really clicks. He’s played really well for us, both offensively and defensively.”

Junior running back/linebacker Brian Field is another all-conference player with postseason experience, but the rest of the roster is primarily made up of freshmen and sophomores.

The future certainly looks bright for the Thunder, but the sun hasn’t yet set on this season.

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