10/11/2012 10:16:00 AM Double dose of Sundly and Ashley dooms Fridley
Rance Ashley busted past the Fridley defense
By JEFF NORTON
Having one elite runner in high school football can be the difference between a winning team and a losing team. One guy can change a whole team’s mind set. One guy can make the other team completely alter their normal game plan. One guy can alter outcomes. But, what if a team has two of them? The North Branch football team rode senior quarterback Zack Sundly and senior fullback Rance Ashley to nearly 500 yards rushing en route to a 42-21 shellacking of Fridley on homecoming last week. For most of the year, Sundly has piled up the yards and touchdowns while Ashley has been an effective decoy on the Vikings’ option attack. However, the Tigers opted to play Sundly to the outside for the most part last week, and Ashley made them pay with bruising short runs, swift long runs and a general domination of the Tiger defense.
The game started like most North Branch contests have this year. The Vikings started with the ball and began a slow and methodical march down the field. They were moving the ball at five yards a clip and getting first downs easily until a negative five yard play on a first down just past midfield left them in a second and 15. After gaining back the five, the Vikings were in third and 10 just outside the 40-yard line. It looked like they might try to get a chunk of the yards back and go for it on fourth down in no man’s land of scoring, but Sundly went to the air and connected with Reid Johnson strafing out of the backfield and down the left sideline. Johnson caught the ball in stride and brought it down near the redzone. A few plays later, Ashley took a handoff from Sundly up the middle and ran in untouched from 14 yards out, exclamating an effective opening homecoming drive. But, the Achilles heel of the Vikings this year has been defense, and when they trotted out against the potent Tiger offense, it was a carbon copy of NB’s opening drive. Fridley was ripping of yardage at blistering pace until they put the ball in from the seven yard line and tied the game at 7-7. On North Branch’s next drive, the crowd, which had packed the seats and overflowed on both sides of the bleachers, looking like a red flood overflowing a boat, really stepped up their intensity. It didn’t take long for the Vikings to reward their boisterous crowd with a huge play. North Branch took over on their own 10 yard line and went right back to the option play. Sundly option to his right and when the defensive end stayed home and didn’t crash down the line, he gladly gave it to Ashley. Ashley had a huge hole down the right side of the field and hit it. A Fridley defender had the angle on him and it looked like it might go for a 30-yard gain, getting NB out of the shadow of their own endzone. It ended up being more than 30.
The one defender left approached Ashley and he promptly stiff armed the defender away from him and made him stumble a bit. From there, Ashley was clear to the end zone and it became a foot race between him and the defender. Ashley willed himself into the endzone, completing a dramatic, skillfully mastered 90 yard touchdown run. Logan Klatt’s extra point put the Vikings up 14-7. From there, both defenses came to play and traded a few stops. The NB defense got the best of the exchanges though when they forced a fumble as Fridley was driving close to the endzone. Of course, the North Branch offense took that turnover to the bank. They moved the ball down the field, with only about four minutes left in the half, and punctuated another scoring drive with a 54-yard touchdown scamper by Sundly, stretching North Branch’s lead to 21-7, their biggest of the year. The quick drive left Fridley with three minutes to work, but with blustery winds blowing at their back and a few snowflakes beginning to fall, it didn’t seem likely that they could move the ball down the field at a quick pace. However, Fridley quarterback Nick Rathke was crisp on the drive and hit multiple open receivers as the Tigers marched down the field fairly effortlessly. After a big gain on third down put the ball at the two-yard line, Fridley cut the lead to seven with a short touchdown plunge. The score was a deflating one for North Branch, who hoped to go into halftime up by two scores, but they still held a lead and a raucous crowd on their side. The air came out of the stadium even more when the Tigers opened the second half with another long scoring drive. This one was capped off by a five yard touchdown followed by an extra point that tied the game at 21-21. Over the next 20 minutes however, North Branch, as a whole, turned in their best team performance to date. The offense immediately answered back, bashing and dashing their way down the field with Sundly and Ashley. It was a simple fact for Sundly. If the end crashed, her was going to gain at least five yards.
If the end stayed at home, Ashley was bulling his way forward for at least five yards. Like clockwork, it moved the ball down the field until Sundly punched it in from five yards out, giving both him and Ashley two touchdowns on the game and the Vikings a 28-21 lead. Both defenses again stepped up over the stretch of the next few minutes. North Branch forced a punt late in the third quarter, only to have the offense fumble to right back to Fridley on their first play of the ensuing drive. The score remained deadlocked, but it only seemed like a matter of time before North Branch would pull away. Fridley was having a hard time moving the ball consistently, and the only thing stopped North Branch was unforced errors. Eventually, though, those stopped and North Branch resumed their ground attack. Ashley scored his third touchdown of the game just before the third quarter ended, and North Branch’s defense continued to lock up Fridley’s attack. At times, the Tigers could move the ball, but as soon as they started sniffing at the Vikings redzone, the North Branch defense would come up with either a big stop or a big turnover, and their offense would go right back at it.
With the minutes ticking down, North Branch scored another touchdown, this time Sundly scored his third touchdown of the game and the Vikings held a 42-21 lead. The gap was big enough that the Fridley fans mostly cleared out of the chilly night well before the final buzzer had sounded, and even some of the hundreds of North Branch fans and alumni in attendance were able to get to their cozy homes and heated cars before the clock ran out. For the game, North Branch had over 500 yards rushing between Sundly, Ashley and Tony Denn with Sundly and Ashley accounting for 490. The homecoming win moved North Branch to 3-3. The first time they have been at .500 this late in the season in the 2000s. They have two regular season games left. They travel to Irondale on Friday, Oct. 12 before hosting the Benilde-St. Margaret’s Red Knights in their season finale on Wednesday, Oct. 17. The early game is for the traditional MEA holiday the third weekend in October. Irondale is 4-2 on the year with their losses coming to two undefeated teams, South St. Paul and Spring Lake Park. Benilde is 2-4. They’ve beaten Cooper, but also lost to Fridley, so it should be a duel between the two red-and-white schools.