September 10, 2009 at 8:59 a.m.
North Branch pulls off huge shocker, beats CL
Junior running back Zack Smith carried 26 times for 200 yards and three TD’s
After a few years of lopsided games in favor of the 'Cats, North Branch crept up last year in the season opener, and kept the game competitive throughout, losing 15-0 in the end.
This year, however, North Branch ditched the subtlety and smacked Chisago Lakes in the mouth by racing out to a blistering 21-point lead.
There were plenty of questions for both teams entering the game. The Wildcats had to replace two-year starter Andy Willhite at quarterback, plus a good chunk of the offensive and defensive lines.
The Vikings were minus their top two quarterbacks from last year, as well as their leading rusher and their most dominating force on the line in Mike Johnson.
Although most knew that the game wasn't going to be a trouncing like it was a few years back, few thought the Vikings could actually break through and win this year.
"The team really performed well," said first-year Head Coach Justin Sawyer, who secured his first career head coaching win. "I think we surprised a lot of people."
The game started with some tentativeness on both sides. North Branch opened by receiving the the kickoff, but were unable to do much with the possession. Smith ended up skying a 50-yard punt into Chisago Lakes territory that was a small glimpse into the huge night that he would later have.
North Branch's defense, which played phenomenal last year against Chisago Lakes, didn't skip a beat this year. They came out and shut down quarterback Jeff Sargeant and the Wildcats' three-pronged running attack on the first series.
After a Brandon Dawson punt, the Vikings took over and Smith started his quest to wear down the Wildcat defensive line. He was picking up good chunks of yardage and chewing up massive amounts of clock when the Vikings surprised a lot of people and went to the air.
Junior Scott Bossard, who was the third string quarterback last year, lofted a perfect pass to Luke Levassuer, who had sneaked behind the Chisago Lakes defense, for the first score of the game.
The score came out of a shotgun formation, which the Vikings used exclusively for the game. "We just want to use multiple formations to gain an advantage," Sawyer said. "We'll continue running base plays, but we'll use different formations."
Senior kicker Brian Grand converted the extra point from the 21-yard touchdown reception, and the Vikings had their first lead over the Wildcats in years.
North Branch's defense didn't let down with the lead, either. They kept pressuring Sargeant when he kept the ball, and stayed home when tailbacks Joey Reed and Brandon Hickcox ran misdirection plays at them.
Senior fullback Chad Haider was one of the few weapons that was working for the Wildcats, as his bulk and stocky legs kept moving the pile. The Vikings defense may have bent under Haider's pressure, but they didn't break and got the ball back on downs.
The Vikings' offense kept the momentum going with another time-consuming, yardage-grinding drive capped with Smith's first touchdown of the game, a six-yard plunge that afforded North Branch a 13-0 lead. Grand converted his second extra point of the game and North Branch, to most everyone's surprise, held a two score lead over host Chisago Lakes.
When the Wildcats took over, they started to move the ball, and it looked like the CL offense might finally be able to kickstart the crowd and the rest of the team. The only thing they ended up doing was feeding fuel to the North Branch fire.
Sargeant dropped back to pass and thought he found an open receiver, but senior defensive back Sean Graff stepped in front of the pass and strafed to the endzone. He had a clear path to six points until he was caught behind at the one-yard line.
It didn't matter, though, as Smith trotted out onto the field and bulled his way into the endzone for his second touchdown of the game, and a 20-0 lead for the Vikes. Grand made good on the point after, and the Vikings continued to shock everyone in attendance with a 21-0 lead.
The Wildcats finally put together a drive reminiscent of the past few years when their offense was like a wild train with no brakes.
A steady dose of Sargeant, Reed and Haider moved the Wildcats into a position to score. Nathaniel Gilman finished the drive by punching in a touchdown from five yards out. A Dominic Novak extra point chopped the lead to 21-7, and the Vikings started to have some flashbacks to last year.
In their second game of the season in 2008, North Branch had an early 21-0 lead against Fridley and watched it slowly evaporate into a 28-21 loss.
As time was running down in the first half, the Vikings were trying to move into a position to score at least three more points before the buzzer sounded. But, in the process, disaster struck for them when Dawson stepped in front of a Bossard pass and started sprinting down the sideline. The lumbering linebacker could smell the endzone when Bossard finally caught up to him and shoved him out of bounds inside the five-yard line.
The sense of uneasiness was coming over the North Branch side of the field, and the Chisago Lakes crowd was roaring for a touchdown before the half ended.
With less than a minute left, the Wildcats went to pass to try to get the ball in, but senior Vikings linebacker Matt Lutgen jumped the slant route in the end zone and picked off the pass and returned it to midfield, ending the Wildcats threat.
Bossard's hustle after throwing the pick saved the Vikings' seven points. If he didn't catch Dawson, it was an easy touchdown for the Wildcats, and they would've entered the locker room with all the momentum in the world.
Instead, Bossard took a knee, and the Vikings entered halftime with a 14-point lead at 21-7.
"After Brandon's interception near the end of the first half, [Bossard] chased him down and caught him at the two yard line. Since we were unable to score after that, it ended up being a difference maker," Chisago Lakes Head Coach Bill Weiss said. "If Brandon had scored, it would have cut their lead to seven and who knows what would have happened, since we were getting the ball back to start the second half."
"That was a huge turn in the game," Sawyer added. "Scott could've just thrown the pick and turned his head down, but he hustled back, passed a bunch of players and got him out of bounds. It's a key play that would never get recognized in a box score."
The third quarter was as much a chess game as it was a football match up. The two teams traded punches for most of the period, but Chisago Lakes ended the qaurter with the big haymaker.
After a nice drive brought them down to the Vikings eight-yard line, junior Cory Lushanko busted through the Vikings defense for a touchdown. But, the 'Cats were called for an illegal shift penalty, which happened often in the second half. With six points taken off the board, things again looked tough for the 'Cats. After moving the ball back down to the six-yard line, Jordan Hickcox willed his way into the corner of the endzone by fighting through three North Branch defenders at the goalline.
Novak made the ensuing extra point and trimmed the lead to one score at 21-14.
The two teams battled for position into the late part of the third quarter and most of the fourth quarter. Chisago Lakes couldn't consistently get their running game going, save for a few big runs by Haider, and North Branch was happy to watch seconds tick off the clock with an effective running back in Smith chewing up yards.
As the fourth quarter started, Smith almost drove a nail in the Wildcat coffin, but Cory Lushanko's effort kept Chisago Lakes in the game. At midfield, Smith was bottled up for what seemed like a harmless gain, but out of nowhere, he came streaking out of the pile with nobody in his way to the endzone. As he was inching closer to the end zone, Lushanko caught up to him and spiked the ball out of his hands right around the one-yard line. Kyle Hagglund was trailing the play trying to catch Smith and was in perfect position to leap onto the ball as it rolled into the end zone for a Wildcat touchback.
It was another huge momentum swing that the Wildcats tried to take advantage of, but just couldn't.
"One of the plays that really stood out for us was when Cory ran down [Smith] at the one-yard line and punched the ball loose. Kyle was trailing the play and pounced on it in the end zone for a touchback," Weiss explained. "Nobody would have thought anything of it if they had given up the pursuit, but those guys never gave up. It gives us something to build on. With efforts like that, we can turn this thing around and go in the direction we expect to go."
As the time started to wear down, Chisago Lakes was pressured into more passing downs, and it resulted in another Sargeant interception. Graff again returned the ball down inside the five-yard line before being tackled. Just like the first pick, it quickly led to a short Smith touchdown plunge, sealing the game at 28-14 with only a few minutes left.
Smith ended the game with 200 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns in his breakout game. "We are very aware of what he is capable of , but we didn't expect it," Sawyer said after the game. "It was pretty crazy and impressive."
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings were anchored by their swarming linebackers. Bryce Hutchings led the Vikings' defense with 14 tackles, Erik Chouinard had 13, and Zak Carchedi had nine tackles and a sack. Graff grabbed two pick of NB's four picks to go along with his three tackles and turned those into 90 return yards, setting up two of the Vikes' four touchdowns.
For the 'Cats, Haider was the star on offense. He carried the ball 14 times for 109 yards. "Chad was a bright spot for us on offense. He's one of our returning starters, had some opportunities and made some nice runs," Weiss said. "For our running game in general, we hung on to the ball, which is critical for a run-oriented team. Unfortunately, our execution in the passing phase was not so good."
Sawyer was just happy to get his first win early in the season. "It's a relief to get it out of the way and not hanging over my head or the team's head," he said. "I knew we were capable of doing it. But, there is still plenty of things to work on. We had too many penalties and we gave up too many rushing yards."
On the other hand, Weiss, who is a 13-year veteran at Chisago Lakes said it was a tough loss. "I'm extremely disappointed in the loss," he said. "You can't expect to win when you make a lot of mistakes and take a lot of penalties. But that's not to take away from North Branch. They were well coached and played well and they deserved to win. We had a lack of execution today, but not a lack of effort. Now we've got to overcome our disappointment and look forward to next week's game."
For Chisago Lakes, they will look to rebound against St. Louis Park this Friday as they travel south to play the Orioles. St. Louis Park opened the season with a 21-6 loss to the Benilde-St. Margaret's Red Knights.
For the Vikings, who are now 1-0, they get a shot at redemption against Fridley. They host the Tigers at 7 p.m. this Friday, and they hope to pay them back for the Tigers' big 21-point comeback from last year. Fridley smashed Columbia Heights in their opener 41-6. "They have a lot of team speed, and they run a shotgun option, so they'll give us some of the same looks Chisago Lakes did, just from the shotgun," Sawyer said of next week's opponent. "We just need to limit their big plays defensively."
Chisago Lakes running back Jordan Hickcox battled through a wave of North Branch defenders to score the Wildcats' second touchdown of the game on a hard-earned six yard run.
Sean Graff returns his first half interception down to the one-yard line while his team celebrates behind him on the sideline. The pick led to a one-yard touchdown run by North Branch running back Zack Smith that put the Vikings up 21-0.
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