October 23, 2003 at 1:23 p.m.
North Branch 17
Few games live up the hype, this one did.
With the conference title and a number two seed in the section tournament on the line, the Vikings and Wildcats laid it all out on the field, going down to the wire before Chisago squeaked by with a 21-17 win. It was truly a game for the ages.
“It was pretty much expected,” said Bill Weiss, Chisago Lakes football head coach. “Not to mention who we were playing, there is something about the end of the regular season, knowing that the regular season doesn’t matter after that point. It was a fun atmosphere.”
“I just thought both teams played hard,” said Joel Swanson, North Branch football head coach. “The made some blitzes that we didn’t pick up on, we made some bad reads. Next time we play them, maybe it will be different.”
Before the contest even started, the winds of change began to swirl. Noticeable absent from the North Branch sideline was Marc Vanden Heuvel, the Vikings leading rusher who was out due to an injury.
“We didn’t know about it until two days before the game so you change your game-plan and do what you can,” mentioned Swanson. “It would’ve been nice to have him but we weren’t going to mope about it. The kids did a nice job filling in where they had to.”
Meanwhile, on the other side, the Wildcats had there own injury problems. Three starters were out, and after Mike Tschida left in the first quarter with a knee injury, the list of walking wounded moved to four. If that wasn’t bad enough, two of the injured, Tschida and Jim Achartz, were the ‘Cats back-up quarterbacks, leaving Thomas Moody all alone, literally.
“It was certainly a concern,” mentioned Weiss. “We have Rob Sandgren who has played quarterback before, not this year, but he’s played there. We covered ourselves just in case.”
Early on, North Branch was handed a break on their opening drive after the Wildcats were called for running into the kicker on fourth and six. That put the Vikings at fourth and one instead from the Chisago Lakes 47, paving the way for a first down run on the very next play. Determined to answer back, Mike Tschida intercepted a Matt Fletcher on the next play at midfield. Tschida was injured on the play.
“There is eight or nine different times like that where you have an opportunity and it goes one way or another,” replied Swanson. “We just made some mistakes here and there that were the difference. That was one of them.”
“I think it was a big play. Anytime you get a turnover in a championship game, it’s big,” remarked Weiss. “Turnovers are critical in every game so it was a big play for us.”
On the field for the first time, the powerful Wildcat offense stuttered out of the gates, running for 21 yards in the first quarter, only managing two first downs in the first 12 minutes. However, the Vikings were just as ineffective, racking up only 37 yards of total offense in the quarter, leaving both teams scoreless heading into the second.
“Our guys just came out and executed. It wasn’t really anything special,” remarked Weiss. “Basically, they put us in position and that’s all we can ask for.”
It was more of the same in the second as both teams opened up with punts. Finally on the Wildcats fourth possession of the game, Chisago threw the first punch.
Set up by a 22 yard pass play from Moody to Marcus Burgin, the Wildcat running game did the rest, rumbling down the field. Speaking of rumbling, centering the attack was Aaron James, who saw the ball seven times during the drive, the last of which was a four yard touchdown run, jumping the ‘Cats in front 7-0.
“With the first drive, we were trying to get a feel for things,” said Weiss. “We settled down and opportunities came our way. Basically, we just started to adjust to the feel of the game.”
The 64 yard, 4:30 drive left little time for the Vikings to respond, although they gave it a shot. Four straight pass completions put them at midfield with enough time for one desperation heave with three seconds left. The pass was knocked down in the end zone, keeping the score 7-0 Chisago at the half.
“We were satisfied with the first half,” mentioned Weiss. “Obviously. there were some concerns, but we just reviewed our game-plan in the locker room and talked about what we wanted to do.”
“We came in with a nice game-plan. I thought Ben Stenberg did a nice job filling in for Marc (Vanden Heuvel) at strong safety. We had another new kid playing middle linebacker,” said Swanson. “Overall, we did a nice job in the first half”
Despite trailing by seven, late in the second quarter, Swanson and company noticed a weakness in the Wildcats armor, their pass defense. Hampered by several injuries, Chisago Lakes struggled to patch the leaks and North Branch was ready to take advantage of it.
On the heels of a Chisago punt to start the third quarter, North Branch took to the air. Taking over at their own 40 yard line, the Vikings threw the ball five times during the drive, throwing in six runs. The result, a seven yard touchdown pass from Fletcher to Ed Meier, tying the game 7-7.
“We hadn’t seen them against a lot of throwing but we knew that the teams who had scored some points against them were passing teams,” mentioned Swanson. “Plus, you go in there with a whole different frame of mind without Marc. Ben did a great job stepping in. We knew some guys would have to step up and they did, it just wasn’t enough.”
Chisago Lakes knew they not only needed a long successful drive, but also a score to keep the pressure on the Vikings. They got both by once again pounding the ball up the middle, totalling dominating the line of scrimmage. The ‘Cats went with run after run, moving the ball and moving the chains. James, Danny Reed, Todd Froberg, and Moody combined to move the ball 77 yards on 10 plays, culminating with a one yard run by Moody with 3:24 left in the third, his second rushing touchdown of the season.
Down 14-7, the Vikings went back to work and back to the air, answering back two minutes later. This time, Fletcher found Tony Beaver along the sidelines for a 34 yard scoring strike, tying the contest 14-14 after the third quarter.
Back and forth, back and forth, and the drama was only going to build. Facing another must score situation, Chisago Lakes again responded, barely.
James and Reed opened up the fourth quarter with runs of 15 and 20 yards respectively, taking the ball down to the North Branch four yard line.
At first and goal, the Wildcats had four downs to punch it in- they needed all four. Runs on first and second down produced nothing, and after James moved the ball to the three on third down, the ‘Cats were faced with fourth down and goal from the three. In what might have been the call of the season, Weiss and company went for it, springing Reed free along the right side, giving the senior an easy path to the end zone. Going for it wasn’t the gutsy part. No, it was the fact that the score came off the option.
“Jeff Sauerassig is my offensive coordinator and I have all of the confidence in the world in him,” remarked Weiss. “I knew he would make the right call. It’s something we do all of the time and it gives us three options. The quarterback can take it, pitch it off to the running back or the fullback.”
“Where I came from, I ran the option for 15 years, that’s the type of play I would’ve ran in that situation, that’s their thing. “If they would’ve missed it, I’m sure some people would be asking some questions, but that’s their bread and butter.”
Chisago Lakes was back in the lead 21-14 with 7:49 left to play, more than enough time for the Vikings to even the score.
After the Wildcats gave the Vikings a first down on an offsides penalty, North Branch marched to the ball inside the Chisago 20 yard line before North Branch was driven back on a Wildcat sack on third down. Facing fourth and long with under three minutes to play, Swanson opted for the field goal.
“Didn’t even think about it,” said Swanson. “We needed some momentum. I thought if we would of missed it on fourth down, they would’ve kicked us pretty good. We needed the momentum on our sides.”
The move worked as Britt Baumann split the uprights from 35 yards away, pulling North Branch within four, 21-17. Still, in order to complete the comeback, the Vikings knew they needed a little luck. For example, they needed to recover the onside kick to make things really interesting. Guess what happened?
“You practice that hoping it’s going to work in the game,” replied Swanson. “We had them where we wanted them. Everything went right, but we just made some mental mistakes at the end that cost us.”
“It was a perfect kick,” said Weiss. “Baumann hit that thing exact. It was a beautiful play.”
The Vikings got their wish. Standing at the Chisago Lakes 45, North Branch had 1:57 to score. Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, Weiss was hoping that his defense would step up, again.
“My first thought was to tell my defense to get out there and stop them,” remembered Weiss. “As a coach, you have to prepare yourself for every situation. I just looked to our defense to go out there and do their job and they did that.”
Fletcher opened up the drive with a quick pass play, moving the ball to the Wildcat 41. After an incomplete pass on second down, Ben Stenberg got the call on third down, gaining only one yard. That left the Vikings with an important fourth down conversion of their own, facing fourth five from the 40. The game had come down to one play.
Under heavy pressure, Fletcher tried to allude the Wildcat rush, but Ross Stensrud and Marcus Burgin tracked down the senior quarterback, throwing him for a 14 yard loss, giving the ball back to Chisago with 1:50 left.
“We were sitting in a good situation. They brought a blitz and we missed it,” remembered Swanson. “What can I say? Next time that happens, we gain 12 yards on that play, but they made the play and we didn’t.”
“We brought some pressure at him, we had to,” mentioned Weiss. “I thought that if you let Fletcher sit back there with a lot of time, he’s going to find a receiver. Fletcher was on and we had to disrupt him a little bit. Fortunately it worked.”
Basically, the ‘Cats just needed one first down to run the clock out. Reed gave that to them on the option, sprinting pass the first down marker on an eight yard run. North Branch could only watch as the clock, and their shot at a conference title, expired.
When the scoreboard finally hit zero, Chisago Lakes had their championship with a 21-17 win.
“It was very exciting,” smiled Weiss. “We’ve had some exciting football games this season, but with all that went into it, I’d rank that one right up there. It was a great football game. It was fun and that’s what we wanted. Afterward, there was a pretty good celebration.”
Elsewhere, Princeton destroyed Mora, giving the Tigers a share of the Rum River title with the Wildcats. Still, sharing the trophy didn’t matter a whole lot to Chisago.
‘Doesn’t matter one bit,” remarked Weiss. “I can’t remember anyone who has gone undefeated in the conference. For two teams to finish with one loss is remarkable. Tie or no tie, it’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
Along with the title, the Wildcats (7-1, 6-1 conference) cliched an number two seed in the upcoming section playoffs, facing off with Andover (not Annandale). North Branch (6-2, 5-2 in conference), the number three seed in the section, gets Monticello.
“The guys played hard the entire game and I guess that’s all you can ask,” said Swanson. “We missed a 70 yard touchdown pass by inches and made some mental mistakes. The next time we play them I think things could be different.”
It might be sooner than anyone realizes. If both the Wildcats and Vikings win their first round games, Chisago Lakes and North Branch will meet again for the right to advance to the section championship.
Can it get any better?
“It’s in the back of your mind, but we’re playing a team in Monticello that did pretty well last year in the playoffs,” mentioned Swanson. “They can definitely beat us, so that’s all we’re focused on right now.”
“Andover did some good things against us the last time we played them and that’s a cause for concern,” replied Weiss. “Knowing that they can play is going to help us focus on the game. At this point in the season, it’s a one game at a time approach.”
Chisago Lakes 21
North Branch 17
1 2 3 4 F
North Branch 0 0 14 3 17
Chisago Lakes 0 7 7 7 21
CL- James 4 yrd. TD run
(Kick good) 7-0
NB- Meier 7 yrd. TD rec.
(Kick good) 7-7
CL- Moody 1 yrd. TD run
(Kick good) 14-7
NB- Beaver 34 yrd. TD rec.
(Kick good) 14-14
CL- Reed 3 yrd. TD run
(Kick good) 21-14
NB- Baumann 35 yrd. FG 21-17
Chisago Lakes statistics
Moody- 2-3, 31 yrds.
James- 26 rush, 120 yrds., TD
Reed- 12 rush, 81 yrds., TD
Froberg- 4 rush, 42 yrds.
Moody- 11 rush, 8 yrds., TD
Burgin- 2 rec., 31 yrds.
North Branch Statistics
Fletcher: 19-28, 148 yrds., 2 TD
Stenberg- 22 rush, 101 yrds.
Olson- 3 rush, 17 yrds.
Hutchings- 1 rush, 12 yrds.
Frich- 1 rush, -3 yrds.
Fletcher- 4 rush, -36 yrds.
Beaver- 9 rec., 75 yrds., TD
Anderson- 3 rec., 20 yrds.
Olson- 3 rec., 20 yrds.
Meier- 2 rec., 18 yrds., TD
Hutchings- 2 rec., 15 yrds.
Chisago Lakes- 287 yards
(256 rush, 31 pass)
North Branch- 239 yards
(91 rush, 148 pass)
As many of you have noticed by now, in the October 2nd sports issue, I referred to the Chisago Lakes football team as beating Annandale. Of course, I meant to say Andover. My daughter was born the night before the edition went to press. Obviously, writing the story at the hospital wasn’t the right thing to do. Thanks for your understanding.