September 23, 2010 at 9:58 a.m.

Wildcats bring county bragging rights back to CL

Wildcats bring county bragging rights back to CL
Wildcats bring county bragging rights back to CL

Only 13 miles separate Chisago Lakes High School from North Branch High School.

Until last year though, the pair of schools were worlds apart when it came to the football field. From 2005 to 2008, Chisago Lakes outscored North Branch 144-44 in their four meetings.

The tide slowly began to shift in that 2008 meeting when the 'Cats shut out North Branch, but it was only 15-0. Last year -- 2009 -- the North Branch charges finally broke the half-decade slump with a 28-14 victory over the Wildcats and restarted what had been a stagnant rivalry between the two football programs.

Fans turned out in droves for this game. The North Branch side was packed 10 minutes before kickoff, a rare sight outside of homecoming the past few years, and Chisago Lakes brought their own contingent of fans draped in all white, as if to 'white out' the Vikings. The fans wouldn't be disappointed, either, this year, as things only got better in the rivalry.

The first couple minutes of the game were frantic. North Branch received the kick and were set to go to work led by the senior trio of quarterback Scott Bossard, running back Zack Smith and receiver Luke Levasseur. Before they could even get started, though, an errant shotgun snap sent them back a chunk of yardage.

Frustrated by the first result, offensive coordinator Bill Baumann moved Bossard up under center for the next play. Things went from bad to worse from there as the snap was fumbled, and this time, Chisago Lakes recovered the ball and was already in business 30 seconds into the game.

Near disaster struck for North Branch when CL's Cory Lushanko took the first hand off and used his speed to get the corner against the Vikes' defense. Lushanko raced 21 yards to put the ball at North Branch's seven-yard line with a first down.

The Viking defense showed its prowess in close quarters, though, as four plays in a row, they kept the Wildcats from breaking the goal line, and they earned a turnover on downs as a result.

But, they were backed up inside their own five yard line, and they needed to get some breathing room to start working their shotgun offense. Another botched center to quarterback exchange wasted one down for North Branch and pushed them even closer to their own end zone. On the next play, the Chisago Lakes defense gashed the middle of the North Branch offensive line and stuck running back Zack Smith in the end zone for the first score of the game, a rare two-point safety.

A jacked up Chisago Lakes defense came storming off the field while an already dejected looking North Branch offense trudged toward the home side of the field.

Along with the safety, North Branch had to kick the ball back off to Chisago Lakes and give them another opportunity to score. North Branch's defense had other ideas, though, as they forced an early turnover of their own to give their offense good field position.

The Viking offense couldn't move it close enough to attempt a field goal, and a failed fourth down attempt put the ball back into the capable hands of Chisago Lakes' senior quarterback Jeff Sargeant. The 'Cats began a drive that would give the Vikings a heavy dose of Sargeant and the speedster Lushanko. A big completion from Sargeant to Brent Tretsven was the key play in the drive the led Chisago into North Branch's territory.

However, the Wildcats offense stalled just inside the red zone and they were forced to trot out senior soccer player/kicker Kyle Buchanon, who was seven-of-eight on extra points this year, but had yet to convert a field goal. 'Buck', as he's known by his teammates, connected well on the ball, but Levasseur had taken a perfect inside route to the ball and laid out at the last second to get a hand on it as it fluttered short in the end zone.

With the renewed momentum from Levasseur's effort, North Branch started their own march down the field, effectively mixing in runs from Bossard and Smith with short passes to Levasseur. Much like Chisago's drive, though, the North Branch offense sputtered once it got into the red zone, and they were forced to send out their own soccer player/kicker Tony Ceroll. Ceroll had converted both extra points he attempted on the year, but just like Buck, he hadn't hit a field goal yet.

Ceroll's attempt came from 31 yards out, but it was just a hint low, which allowed Brandon Gorski a chance to get up high enough to block it. He did just that, knocking the kick to the far side of the field with his hand and keeping the game in a 2-0 deadlock as the teams headed for halftime.

Adjustments made and legs warmed back up, the teams took the field again for the second half as Chisago Lakes readied to receive the kickoff.

Their first drive was a thing of beauty. They turned to their punishing fullback Nate Gilman early and often, and it paid off. After he wore down the North Branch defense with a couple of runs, Sargeant found Gilman on a little dump-off pass that Gilman did much more with. He rumbled his way through, over, around and past North Branch defenders on his way to a 51-yard touchdown reception. A successful Buchanon extra point made the game 9-0, and with the defensive struggle the game had been up until that point, those nine points seemed like they may be enough.

The Wildcats didn't see it as enough, and they went to work right away. They stuffed the North Branch offense on the ensuing drive and earned the ball back. Chisago Lakes started another drive that was centered around Gilman's punishing runs. The senior, who ended up with 111 yards on only nine carries, brought Chisago Lakes down to the 23 yard line, where Sargeant hooked up with fellow senior Jordan Hickcox for his second touchdown pass of the game.

Hickcox had one-on-one coverage in the end zone and just took a better route to the ball as it floated right into his arms in the end zone. Chisago lined up in their awkward extra point position like they always do, but this time came out with a pass to the outside and secured the two-point conversion to stretch their lead to 17-0 -- something that must have felt insurmountable for the Viking offense that had only scored 14 points in their past six and a half quarters.

However, Bossard, who has been an emotional leader for the Vikings all year, wouldn't let them roll over. Behind him and Smith, North Branch moved to the cusp of Chisago Lakes territory at their own 45. However, they faced a third and 12 and Chisago knew a pass would be coming.

Bossard lined up a bullet to junior Jared Houle, but the pass tipped off Houle's hand and seemed destined to fall into a Wildcats' hands. However, the ball then tipped off of Wildcat defender and happened to land right back in the waiting arms of Houle, who stretched the reception for 20 yards down to Chisago's 35 yard line.

After the miracle play, Bossard rolled to his left on a designed pass and when no one was open, he took off, using his big frame to bowl over defenders, as well as his shiftiness to make them miss. When all the dust settled from the bodies hitting the field, Bossard finished off the 35-yard run in the end zone with a celebration, igniting the North Branch sideline and crowd. Ceroll banged home the extra point to trim the lead to 17-7.

The North Branch defense stiffened up with the extra momentum and got the ball back for the offense, where the Vikes started to drive again. In a time-consuming, yardage-chewing drive, North Branch methodically moved down the field, starting in the end of the third quarter, and moving all the way to the middle part of the fourth quarter.

The drive was capped off by a six-yard touchdown plunge by Levasseur. The ensuing extra point made the game 17-14 in favor of CL, but all the momentum was for the boys in red.

But, number 47 from the Wildcats quickly changed that. After getting the ball back on the kick off, the Wildcats went back to Gilman, who ripped off his carries at a 12-yard pace. A few Lushanko runs here and Sargeant runs there kept North Branch off-balance as they needed a stop. Nothing seemed to work for them though as Chisago Lakes moved down the field and put the lead back to 10 after a Gilman touchdown run and Buchanon extra point.

At 24-14 and only two minutes left, things looked tough for North Branch -- until their prayers were answered.

After a decent kick return and a few runs, North Branch went to the air and as Bossard looked down field, his eyes lit up as senior receiver David Leason was standing in the middle of the field, 30 yards downfield, without a Wildcat defender in sight. Bossard chucked the ball, and after a late, acrobatic adjustment, Leason pulled the ball in and raced the rest of the way for a 57-yard touchdown pass that capped a drive that took just under a minute off the game clock. Ceroll's extra point was good and the game was back at 24-21 with a minute and a half remaining.

North Branch, with only one timeout left, had to take a chance with an onside kick. It was Ceroll's first game attempt at an onside kick. The boot stayed a little high, and landed right in Hickcox's hands in the second level of Wildcats. Hickcox nearly broke it to the outside for a return for a touchdown, but North Branch forced him out of bounds. It didn't quite matter, though, as North Branch didn't have enough time or timeouts to limit the punishing Wildcats. A few runs and kneel downs later, and the Vikings went to 0-3 and the Wildcats improved to 3-0.

"This was an exciting battle for Chisago County bragging rights, but unfortunately we came out on wrong end," North Branch Head Coach Justin Sawyer, who got his first career win against Chisago Lakes last year, said. "It was another game in which we had opportunties that we did not take advantage of."

With all three losses coming by single digits -- the Vikes have lost by two, seven and three -- Sawyer knows they aren't far off from a drastically different result in each game. "We are very close to making big things happen when we play a complete game," he said. "This week it was our defense playing great in the first half while our offense sputtered. In the second half, the offense started to click and get the ball moving but the defense couldn't keep Chisago's run offense contained.

"It is tough to be 0-3 knowing that we have lost those three games by a total of 12 points and could have easily come away with victories in all three games."

Sawyer pointed to a few good things that North Branch was able to do, even in a losing effort.

"Our red zone defense, especially in the first half, was great," he said. "Plus, we had over 200 yards rushing, and even down in the second half, we never gave up."

On the night, Bossard was nine-of-17 for 132 yards and a touchdown, while he rushed 11 times for 107 yards and another score. Smith had 82 yards on 23 carries. Smith also led the defense with 15 tackles and one interception on the night.

Levasseur had 25 rushing yards on three carries and 32 receiving yards on four catches. Leason had two catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, while also grabbing three tackles on defense. Houle had nine tackles on defense to go along with his drive-saving 20 yard reception.

For the Wildcats, Sargeant went six-for-12 for 127 yards and two touchdowns. His one pick came just before halftime. Sargeant also had 36 yards on 14 carries.

Lushanko had 73 yards on 13 carries and Gilman churned out 111 yards and a touchdown on nine rushing attempts and 51 yards and a touchdown on his lone reception of the game. He also had five tackles on defense.

Tretsven had 48 yards on three catches and Hickcox had 23 yards and a touchdown on his only catch, plus two tackles on defense.

Kyle Hagglund led the defense with 12 tackles on the night, including some big ones of Smith and Bossard that kept some gains to a minimum.


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