October 6, 2011 at 9:36 a.m.
So far this season, there hadn't been a better remedy for a win than Columbia Heights coming up on a team's schedule. In their four losses, they fell by an average of over 30 points.
With the struggling Hylanders coming to town, coupled with the energy, passion and excitement from homecoming, the North Branch football team was primed for a breakout game despite also being 0-4 on the season. What they got, however, was more of a dogfight than any of them could've expected.
With the stands already packed and a winding line of spectators still shuffling in the leaves waiting for tickets outside of the stadium, the first quarter got underway with North Branch crafting a nice drive on the legs of Brett Klun and Jared Houle. Reid Johnson was the starting signal-caller on the night, but it was evident that it was going to be a quarterback platoon with Zack Sundly
Behind those four and their running prowess, North Branch found themselves knocking on the door to score touchdown early. But, three big stops by the Hylander defense forced North Branch into a fourth and goal from the three yard line. They went for it, and Klun wove his way to the right side and looked as if he may lunge into the end zone for the first score. The ball popped loose near the goal line, but an opportune Houle pounced on it in the end zone for what appeared to be a touchdown.
However, the referee signaled that Klun was down at the one foot line and awarded the ball to Heights since it was fourth down. The Vikings' defense had only one shot to capitalize on the bad field position for the Hylanders because Hylander quarterback Nick Liebelt hit Mat Kourouma for a 25-yard gain out of the end zone.
Heights spent the next couple minutes putting their own drive together, but they came up short near the goal line, much like North Branch.
Just past the midway point of the first quarter, the Vikings took over deep in their own red zone, and this time, they were determined to score. They chewed up yardage and clock time with Sundly, Klun and Houle, punishing the Columbia Heights defense if they managed to get a hand on them.
The tone-setting drive went 15 plays -- all runs -- covered 101 yards after a few lost yardage plays near the middle of the field, and took nearly seven minutes off the clock. It was capped off by a one-yard touchdown dive by Klun. Trent Holmes' ensuing extra point went wide left, and NB was up 6-0.
Heights didn't mess around when they got the ball back, though. They decided to go to the air, since freshman running back David Dixon wasn't making much headway on the ground.
Over the next three minutes, Liebelt diced up the North Branch secondary with an array of slants and swing passes. With his arm showing effectiveness, the ground game was also opened up a bit for Dixon as he started to get some traction. They punctuated their drive with a 13-yard touchdown run by Liebelt after he dropped back to pass and had to scramble his way into the end zone. Their two-point conversion missed and the game was tied 6-6.
North Branch didn't take long to respond though. Houle's kick return came out to the 37-yard line and Sundly did most of the damage on the first play. He faked a hand off to a strafing Klun and busted through the line behind the right guard. He danced through the second level of defenders and had nothing but green in front of him. Although he was caught, it was at the one-yard line and he eventually finished the drive two plays later with a one-yard touchdown plunge to give the lead back to North Branch. Holmes' kick split the uprights this time, and NB was up 13-6.
The rest of the half was a stalemate between the two teams as both were able to move the ball when they had it, but neither could finish drives. North Branch had a similar problem at times last year, moving the ball between the red zones at will, but when they got down in the critical area, things would stall.
Heights received the second half kick and went to the air again. The steady dose of passing mixed things up for North Branch and put them on their heels when it came to their run defense, and the Hylanders were able to move the ball effectively. They manufactured a 10 play, 89 yard drive that ended in a one yard touchdown run by Dixon. Liebelt's two-point conversion pass was good and Heights enjoyed their first lead of the game, and of the season, at 14-13.
Houle, who was playing in his last homecoming game of his career, decided to get in on the scoring fun when North Branch took over again on the kickoff. After another effective kick return gave the Vikes the ball at their 40, a couple big gains on the ground moved the ball to Heights' 35-yard line. Houle proceeded to sprint through the left side of the line on a counter and raced to the end zone untouched for his first score of the game. The Vikings went for the two-point conversion to stretch the lead to seven, but Sundly was stopped short of the goal line, and North Branch led 19-14.
On the ensuing kickoff, Heights' Michael Kantor found a gaping hole in the middle of the kick coverage team and burst through it with only Holmes, the kicker, left to attempt to tackle him. Holmes made a nice effort near midfield, and was blatantly blocked in the back attempting the make the play, but the referee didn't call. Fortunately, Holmes had slowed the runner down enough for the rest of the coverage team to track him down and take him about of bounds at the 25-yard line. Unfortunately, the Hylanders scored six plays later on a one-yard quarterback sneak by Liebelt. Their two-point conversion attempt failed, and they again led by one at 20-19.
After an ineffective drive by both teams, Houle went back to work in nearly the exact same fashion as he did in the earlier drive. North Branch bowled their way to Heights' 37-yard line in five plays with some bruising runs by Sundly and Klun. Houle then used his speed and elusiveness to finish the drive off with a 37-yard touchdown run on another counter to the left side. Again, Houle's shiftiness left him untouched on the score. The drive took six and a half minutes and left only 10 minutes left on the game clock. Sundly's run on the two-point conversion was good this time, and the Vikings held a 27-20 advantage over Heights.
Although the Vikings were having a tough time stopping Heights' offense since the first quarter, they just needed one small break, one opening, to swing the tide of the game heavily in their favor. A minute or so after their last scoring drive, that opening came. CH's Hector Camarena took a pitch the outside and got around the left corner right in front of North Branch's home sideline. There, he was met by Klun and Sundly, who sandwiched and stopped him dead in his tracks. As Sundly finished off the tackle, Klun ripped the ball away from Camarena and another Viking defender pounced on the loose ball as North Branch took over on the Hylanders' 43-yard line. After five runs, the Vikings finished off the drive with a six-yard touchdown run by Sundly, which put North Branch up 33-20 with only seven minutes left in the game. The Holmes extra point went through and North Branch was up 34-20.
Heights obviously came out throwing on their ensuing drive, but they weren't able to move the ball much since the Vikings now knew what was coming. The Vikings took over after the Hylanders failed to convert a fourth down.
North Branch milked the clock the rest of the way, actually moving the ball down to Heights' one-yard line before taking two consecutive knees to end the game, and get their first victory in of the 2011 season and the first career victory for Head Coach Nick Nitti.
On the game, North Branch rushed 52 out of their 54 plays for 413 yards. They were led by Sundly, who had 15 attempts for 167 yards and two touchdowns, and Klun, who had 27 attempts for 159 yards and one touchdown. Houle added three rushes for 77 yards and two touchdowns. North Branch didn't complete a single pass, but they didn't need to, as the rushing attack was so successful. The key for North Branch was staying out of too many third downs and third and longs. On the night, they had 25 first downs and were four-of-six on third downs.
Zack Sundly (10) finishes off a tackle while Brett Klun (20) strips the ball from the Heights' runner for a game-changing turnover.
Commenting has been disabled for this item.