November 4, 2010 at 10:16 a.m.
In a season chock full of bad luck and bad bounces, it was no surprise that the North Branch football season ended in a very unlucky, but also very poorly officiated section quarterfinal game.
The Vikings had earned the fifth seed in the Section 4AAAA tournament with a 3-5 record, and they traveled down to St. Paul last Tuesday night to take on the Hill Murray Pioneers, who had the fourth seed with a 4-4 record in the Classic Suburban Conference.
It was the always evenly-matched four-versus-five match up, and it started shaping up like a wild shootout right away.
Despite the massive wind gusts, pelting rain and muddy fields, things got going quickly on both sides of the ball.
On the Pioneers' first play from scrimmage, senior Ben Martynec flew through the North Branch defense for an 80-yard touchdown run that put North Branch in an early hole. The ensuing extra point went wide, and the Pioneers were up 6-0.
North Branch's offense was up to the task, though. After taking over with the howling wind at their backs, North Branch mixed Zack Smith and Scott Bossard together well, trampling over the Pioneer defense, eventually ending the drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge from Bossard. Tony Ceroll's extra point was good, and North Branch was ahead 7-6.
After the defense forced a Hill Murray fumble, Smith did the rest, zigging and zagging through the Hill Murray defense for a 43 yard touchdown run to extend North Branch's lead in the first quarter. Another Ceroll point-after gave the Vikes a 14-6 lead, but the quarter was ended, and it was Hill Murray's time to have the wind at their backs.
At first, it really didn't matter. The North Branch defense caused another turnover near midfield, and the Vikes needed a long drive to milk time off the clock. The Pioneers' had one of Minnesota's most prolific passing attacks during the regular season, and keeping them off the field was of the utmost importance to North Branch.
The Vikes got some good and some bad out of the ensuing drive, however. Smith broke another run of over 40 yards, but he was shoved out of bounds at the two-yard line. He finished the drive off, though, on the next play to extend the lead to 20-6, but it was an extremely short drive.
But the Vikes got a reprieve as Hill Murray continued to lose control of the ball and fumble all over the field.
Although no one scored on the next drive, it was one of the most critical drives of the game, if not the season, for the Vikings.
On second and eight, North Branch got a six yard run out of Smith, setting up a very makeable third and short near midfield to keep the drive alive. If North Branch could score on this drive, it would've extended the lead to 20, and kept the Pioneer offense at bay. But, senior leader Luke Levasseur, one of only two players on the team that plays both offense and defense, was wrongfully ejected for throwing what one of the referees deemed a punch after the play.
As the play was ending in a tackle pile up, 10 yards behind the play, Levasseur simply finished his block by extending his arms, a block commonly called a 'pancake' block -- a block that is perfectly legal. Blockers are taught to extend the arms and keep the defender off of their body and drive.
The official, who was mostly focused on the pile up, caught just a glimpse of the block, but felt it was a punch and per Minnesota State High School League rules, any player deemed to have thrown a punch in a contest is to be ejected immediately.
Instead of a third and short near midfield, North Branch was down on of their best plays and had a second and 16.
"After a very questionable call and ejection, the wind just came out of our sails," Head Coach Justin Sawyer said of the call. "Video confirmed that the call was incorrect, and it took a key blocker and defensive leader out of the game."
To compound matters, on the next play, Bossard ran to the near sideline towards the North Branch bench on an outside sweep. After gaining a couple yards, a gang of Pioneers met Bossard and tackled him. As they were hitting the ground, a Pioneer defender's hand slid up from Bossard's shoulder pads to his face mask and cranked his head backwards and nearly out of his helmet. The play wasn't more than three yards away from the side judge, but he made no call as the North Branch sideline erupted behind him.
The play could've given North Branch a first down if it was called correctly, but instead, they were forced into a third and along into the wind. They ran the ball, but didn't gain the first down.
The ultimate disaster then struck when the Vikings lined up to punt. The snap sailed over the punters head, and he had no choice but to cover up and take the gigantic loss and give Hill Murray the ball with an extremely short field to work with. After a quick pass moved the ball to the two-yard line, Martynec capped the brief drive with a two-yard touchdown run, his second of the night.
After the ugly string of events, the Vikings seemed to be stuck in a rut, not able to budge when they got the ball on offense, and continually back-pedaling when they got on defense.
The Pioneers then took advantage of the wind, moving the ball through the air on their next drive. It looked effortless, as Class AAAA passing leader Rob Daul continually found open receivers over the middle of the field.
The drive was finished off by Daul, as he snuck the pigskin in from two-yards out to tie the game before halftime.
Because North Branch had deferred, they had the choice to pick which way they wanted to go in the second half, and they put the wind at Hill Murray's back in the third quarter so they could have the wind in the deciding fourth quarter.
But, Hill Murray sure made it difficult as they continued to roll. They scored on their opening drive of the second half on a five-yard run by Martynec. The Viking offense continued to struggle without the blocking of Levasseur and fighting against the wind, and at one point, they were forced to punt from their own one-yard line into the wind.
Instead of giving the ball to a rolling Hill Murray offense inside the 30, the Vikes had punter Zack Smith simply receive the snap and step out of the back of the end zone to give the Pioneers two points.
The safety extended Hill Murrays lead to 28-20, but kept it within one score for North Branch. But, with the rules of a safety, the Vikings had to kick the ball right back to Hill Murray, and they made them pay. Daul found junior tight end Jay Zoborowski at a relentless pace -- Zoborowski finished with five catches for 129 yards, and Hill Murray was right back inside of North Branch's five yard line, knocking on the door.
Another questionable official decision left the Vikings sideline fuming as the drive came to an end. On third and one from the one yard line, Daul ran a quarterback sneak right in the middle of the defense, but didn't move much. No signal was given by either official that he had scored, and it looked like NB has secured a stop when they needed one. As the refs walked towards the pile in the middle of the field and told players to start getting up off the pile, they signaled a touchdown. In the 10 seconds they took to make the call and the countless bodies they took off the pile, Daul could've easily moved forward the yard he needed after the whistle had already blown.
The tough calls and mounting deficit started to become too much for North Branch and their offense wasn't getting anything moving when they had the chance. Even in the fourth quarter, with the win at their backs, North Branch failed to score any more points as the wheels fell off and spiraled out of control.
With a 16 point lead, the Pioneers actually added one more score late in the game when Daul hooked up with Zoborowski for a 34-yard catch and run touchdown.
"This was a tough loss for us," Sawyer said after the game. "We took control on both sides of ball getting to a 20-6 lead early in the second quarter, but the wind came out of our sails.
"Our offense went stagnant and our defense could not keep Hill Murray out of the end zone."
He continued, as he talked about the Vikings struggles in the second half after the Levasseur ejection. "In the second we were not able to get all the pieces put back together and Hill Murray pulled away scoring three second half touchdowns."
On the night, Zack Smith capped his career with a phenomenal night, running for 170 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. He also led the defense with eight tackles.
Bossard added 91 yards on 24 carries, but he was a non-factor throwing the ball, as he went 0-for-five with the wind swirling around him.
Junior linebacker Kerry Konrad came back from injury and collected eight tackles, including two huge tackles for loss early in the game. Jared Houle added seven tackles, and Andy Freel had six.
"Overall we had a positive season and continued to move the program in the right direction," Sawyer lamented on his 2009 Vikings. "With a 3-5 record (3-4 in the conference), this was our best season since joining the North Suburban Conference. We very easily could have added a few more wins in the conference if a couple more plays had gone our way.
"I think that we showed a lot of people that we can compete in the North Suburban."
The Vikings will graduate a large class of seniors, including Smith, Bossard and Levasseur, who combined for 23 touchdowns and 1,898 yards rushing 378 carries this season.
Levasseur, along with fellow seniors David Leason and Forrest Huset, combined for 652 receiving yards and seven touchdowns this year.
They also have will have key losses across the offensive and defensive line, as they lose starters Zack DeAdder, Austin Neiderkorn, Kaj Johnson, Marc Lindbeck, Tim Katka and Alex Goshey.
Three of the top five tacklers will also be missing from next years squad as Smith, Levasseur and Zak Carchedi, who missed the Hill Murray game because of a concussion, will be lost to graduation.