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home : sports : sports
December 5, 2021

10/1/2021 1:03:00 PM
Rock Ridge crumbles against Vikings

The North Branch football team brought their unblemished record to Rock Ridge, a tough team with a 2-1 record who has some talent at the skill positions this year, for a Friday night showdown on September 24 in the brisk Eveleth night.

The Vikings proved just why they might be the class of the section this year with a dominating 38-20 win over the Wolverines.

Despite winning by three scores, Rock Ridge took advantage of two big plays to make the score much closer than it appears in the box score.

Rock Ridge started with the ball and moved down filed well. They took the ball all the way down to the 10 yard line using a rush and pass mix, but an intentional grounding penalty on third down sent them into a tough fourth and 17 situation on North Branch’s 23 yardline. Rock Ridge’s quarterback Griffin Dosan hit junior tight end Isaac Flatley down the seam for the first down, and then the bulldozing receiver broke two tackles and had a free path to the end zone, but  North Branch linebacker Matt LaValla caught up to Flatley just before he got to the endzone and stripped the ball out of his hand causing a fumble. A Rock Ridge player had a clear path to recover the ball, but as he jumped on it, it popped out of his grasp and out of the back of the endzone, resulting in a touchback for North Branch and a demoralizing end to a promising drive for the Wolverines.

The Vikings took over possession at their own 20, but they had spent so much time on the sideline waiting for Rock Ridge’s first drive to end that they came out a bit flat. Two short runs led to a third down, but the Vikings fumbled the ball on that third down and Rock Ridge recovered to immediately be back in North Branch’s redzone.

The Wolverines went for the big shot after the turnover, and it turned disastrous for them. On the first play, Dosan dropped back and rolled to the right and chucked a pass up to his receiver. The NB defense had it covered perfect and senior Gabe Huset picked off the pass to get the Vikings the ball back right away.

This time, North Branch was ready to take advantage. They marched down the field on a 16 play drive that featured all runs and finished it off with a three yard touchdown run from Ashton LaBelle. The senior running back made good on the two point conversion as well, giving NB an 8-0 with eight minutes left in the half.

On the ensuing kickoff, soccer player Tanner Bollman booted a line drive directly at the second wave of the Rock Ridge return formation. This is a common technique for NB on kickoffs, and typically that wave lets it go through to the return men. But, the Rock Ridge player tried to field the kick and it drilled him in the chest and bounced straight back towards the North Branch kicking team, who recovered it to take possession right back over at the Wolverines 40 yard line.

On the first play, LaBelle showed why he is among the state’s best running backs. He took a handoff to the left side and made four defenders with a clear path to him miss as he zig zagged through the Wolverines. He then turned on the jets to outrun the rest of the defense nearly all the way to the endzone. He was tracked down at the one yard line on the amazing run. On the very next play, Loghan Croal punched a run in for NB’s second touchdown. Croal got the call on the two point conversion as well, and  converted it to put NB up 16-0.

Rock Ridge took to the air on their next drive, with four passes helping them move down the field. They finished the drive off with a six yard rushing touchdown from Dosan.

The North Branch managed to block the extra point, leaving the score at 16-6 in favor of the Vikes with five minutes left in the half.

Another beautiful, grinding drive that featured nine straight rushes paid off for North Branch, and a big Croal run preceded a short two-yard LaBelle touchdown plunge to extend NB’s lead 22-6. Rock Ridge denied the conversion attempt, so it looked like the game would go into halftime with that score.

But, Rock Ridge had other ideas after a North Branch squib kick. Down to essentially one or two plays, Dosan took the shotgun snap and rolled to his right. Meanwhile, Gavin Dahl, who had started on the right side of the formation, slowly worked his way back across the field and Dosan found him in stride down the left side, two North Branch defenders slipped on the field and all of a sudden, Dahl was off to the races to score an unexpected 58 yard touchdown. RR’s two point conversion was good, and North Branch’s lead was down to 22-14 at halftime.

The Wolverines tried to surprise the Vikings with an onside kick to start the second half, but they were prepared and pounced on it.

Unfortunately, two plays into their drive and North Branch again fumbled the ball with Rock Ridge jumping on it. But, because of the onside kick attempt, North Branch’s defense was in pretty good position and forced a three and out from the RR offense.

North Branch’s offense, which had featured a handful of explosive passes last week against Mora, remained on the ground, doing what Head Coach Justin Voss loves, grinding out yards. They used another ridiculously long drive, 15 plays to be exact, to wear down the depleted Rock Ridge defense and score their fourth touchdown of the game, another short LaBelle dive. The two point conversion was good and NB was up 30-14 at the end of the third quarter.

If North Branch’s offensive game plan was death by 1,000 cuts, Rock Ridge’s scoring was using fast an explosive. On the ensuing kickoff after NB’s touchdown, Dahl found a seam down the left side of the field and burst through it with just a couple of NB defenders to beat. He did just that, racing past and through them for a 70 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was Dahl’s second score of the game, both of them coming from over 58 yards out. The two pointer was no good and RR trailed 30-20.

Despite the big score, the downside was that Rock Ridge’s already weary defense had to trudge right back out to defend NB’s rushing attack.

The Vikings took full advantage, going 62 yards in nine plays including a huge third and nine conversion from quarterback Andrew Thauwald, and it culminated in a Sam Sonnek score from six yards outs. The two point conversion was good and NB had a three score lead at 38-20.

Despite two big completions on RR’s next drive, the defense stiffened up with the Wolverines at the 15 yard line. A sack and loss of seven on a pass completion put RR in a fourth and 26 and the Vikings bagged another sack to turn the ball over on downs and essentially wrap up the victory. They ran a few more plays and got one first down before kneeling out the clock and moving their record to 4-0.

As a team, the Vikings ran for almost 400 yards, with LaBelle going for 201 and three touchdowns. Croal had 72 yards and a score on 10 touches, Thauwald had 49 yards and Sam Robillard had 41 yards. The Vikings didn’t attempt a pass in this one, content to run it 62 times when they were averaging over six yards per carry. LaBelle is fifth in the state with 591 yards rushing and third with 10 touchdowns.

Now, the meat of North Branch’s schedule is on the table. Three of their next four games are against Cloquet, Hermantown and Grand Rapids, who are typically the class of the section.

They host the Grand Rapids Thunderhawks Friday, October 1 for homecoming. The Hawks are 3-1 on the year, Hermantown is 3-1 and Cloquet is 2-2. NB’s other game is against a winless Duluth Denfeld squad that’s been outscored by almost 30 points per game this year.

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