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January 18, 2022

10/29/2021 2:26:00 PM
Viking victory polishes off North Branch's perfect regular season

The North Branch football team needed one more win to finish off their unblemished regular season at 8-0, and not only did they get the victory, they did it with a literal exclamation point.

The Vikings raced out to a 42-6 lead by halftime over a pretty good Cloquet team and cruised in the second half as they won 49-12 on Wednesday, October 20.

The tone for the game was set almost immediately by rugged North Branch linebacker Sam Sonnek. Cloquet gained nine yards on their first two plays from scrimmage to get into third and one. Figuring they could easily pick up the last yard on fourth down if they needed to, Cloquet attempted a pass on third down that fell incomplete. On the ensuing fourth down play, Sonnek absolutely blew the Lumberjack running back up at the line of scrimmage, stopping him for no gain and turning the Cloquet offense over on downs.

The play was especially impactful considering the NB defense struggled the week prior against Hermantown, not getting their first big stop until late in the fourth quarter.

North Branch’s first offensive possession didn’t lead to a score, but they brought the ball all the way down inside Cloquet’s 10 yardline before falling short on fourth down.

That set Cloquet up deep in their own territory, and the NB defense took advantage. On the ‘Jacks first play on the drive, they had a miscommunication between their quarterback and running back, and they ran into each other, resulting in a fumble. North Branch’s defense jumped on the ball at the eight yard line and the offense was right back in business.

On the first play after the turnover, quarterback Andrew Thauwauld took a keeper to the right side and weaved in for the first score of the game to put NB up 6-0. Sonnek waltzed in untouched on the two point conversion, and NB was up 8-0.

The North Branch defense stepped up big again on the next possession. They allowed a 14 yard rush to open it up, but then the next three plays combined for two yards, forcing Cloquet to punt, which went out of bounds at NB’s 17.
The normally methodical NB offense didn’t wait around this time. Sonnek, who can at times be forgotten as a ball carrier in this potent offense, and is looked at as more of a blocker, took a handoff to the right side and burst through a huge hole. With just one defensive back to beat, Sonnek shook him easily, and he was off to the races for an 83 yard touchdown, showing off some surprising speed on the way.

The two point conversion was stuffed, but NB led 14-0 with a couple of quick strike scores.

The Viking defense continued to show massive improvement from last week (when they allowed 42 points to Hermantown), by forcing another Cloquet punt after the ‘Jacks ran just five plays.

North Branch’s offense continued to be wildly effective at keeping Cloquet off balance with fakes. On NB’s first play after the punt, Sam Robillard took a handoff up the middle for 45 yards down to Cloquet’s 20 yard line. The unblocked middle linebacker for Cloquet bit hard on the fake by Thauwald and let Robillard run right past him for the long gain.

Two plays later, Thauwald executed another near perfect fake and went around the left side untouched for a 17 yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. The two point conversion was good and NB led 22-0.

Cloquet finally took advantage of a NB defensive miscue on their next drive, completing a 65 yard touchdown pass on a blown coverage that left a Lumberjack receiver wide open. The extra point was no good and NB led 22-6.

The offense picked up the defense quickly, though. Ashton Labelle ripped off a 25 yard run on the first place of NB’s next drive and then added a 22 yarder right after.

Three plays later, the Cloquet defense was again on skates trying to figure out who had the ball while Robillard dashed up the middle and into the end zone for 10 yards. The Cloquet defense was clearly guessing instead of making reads, and it was backfiring on them in a big way.

The two point conversion was no good and NB led 28-6.

North Branch’s defense continued to shine. They forced punts on the next two Cloquet drives, and on both, the offense quickly marched down the field and scored touchdowns. The first scoring drive was all Labelle, as he rushed for 27 yards on two plays while scoring the touchdown, and then on the second drive, Sonnek had a 22 yard carry and Robillard scored another touchdown, this time from 16 yards out.

The Vikings split the two point conversions, and they led 42-6 at halftime, and the game was clearly already wrapped up.

During halftime, a deluge of rain started to go with the chilly and windy temps already, making it a tough slog in the second half.

The North Branch starters did begin the second half on the field and put together one more scoring drive, this of their typical grinding variety, to go up 49-6.

The key plays were a 28 yard completion on third and 16 from Thauwald to Loghan Croal, and the 12 yard touchdown run from Croal.

After that drive, North Branch brought out the reserves for the rest of the game to get out of the contest unscathed as the natural grass field started to get soaked with a cold northern rain.

The box score read exactly like you’d expect from the North Branch offense this year. Sonnek had 127 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, Robillard had 126 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries, and Labelle had 117 yards and a score on eight carries. Thauwald had five carries for 40 yards and two scores.

As a team, the Vikings averaged 11.7 yards per rush, but if you take out a few of the late game rushes, the big four of Labelle, Robillard, Sonnek and Thauwald combined for 410 yards and an average of almost 14 yards per carry, which is outrageously good over a full game. Croal added 46 total yards and a touchdown on three touches.

For the season, many Vikings had landmark years. Labelle finished the year with 1,244 yards and 17 touchdowns. Both were top 15 marks in the state, regardless of class, and were third in Class AAAA.

Robillard had 537 yards and five touchdowns rushing.  Sonnek, Ryan Oday and Croal all eclipsed 200 yards and combined for eight touchdowns.

Thauwald did it all from the quarterback position. While running NB’s misdirection offense almost perfectly, the senior had 483 rushing yards and was second on the team with seven rushing touchdowns. He also went eight-of-13 passing for 157 yards and five touchdowns with only one pick. He didn’t pass much, but when he did, he made it count.

The benefactor of a majority of those throws was junior tight end Adam Johnstone. He led the team with four catches for 77 yards, but all four of his snags went for touchdowns, proving that all Johnstone does is catch touchdowns.

The defense had ups and downs this year, but should be a strong group in the playoffs led by Sonnek, Matthew Lavalla, Oday, Nate Skiba, Robillard, Jackson Marcussen, Tyler Schneidewind, Gabe Huset and Johnstone.

North Branch will actually have a near instant rematch with Cloquet. The Lumberjacks ended up as the fourth seed in the five team section and drew Duluth Denfeld in the first round on Tuesday, October 26. The ‘Jacks dispatched Denfeld pretty easily, setting up the rematch with North Branch on Saturday, October 30 at 7 p.m. in North Branch.

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