Wildcats triumph in dramatic 52-50 victory
Long touchdowns and quick strikes highlight a back-and-forth affair between Chisago Lakes and St. Francis in the regular season finale
Wildcats triumph in dramatic 52-50 victory
To say the Wildcat football team’s game at St. Francis last Wednesday, October 16 was an offensive showcase is an understatement. Consider these facts: Over 100 points were scored between the two teams. The Wildcats ran just four offensive plays in the first quarter and led 25-6 at the end of the quarter. Mitch Berg completed 7 of 13 passes for 248 yards and four touchdowns. Josh Parks ran the ball just seven times, and gained 126 yards and scored twice. Joe Virga scored three touchdowns in the first quarter. St. Francis running back Max Gust carried the ball 43 times for 236 yards and two touchdowns. St. Francis quarterback Hunter Trautman completed 15 of 24 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns. And St. Francis wide receiver Dylan Schroeder had 8 catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns.
And when it was all over, the Wildcats ended up on top 52-50 to raise their regular season record to 7-1. “That was an entertaining game,” said Wildcat head coach Bill Weiss. “I really enjoyed it. How could you not?” The first quarter went like this: The Wildcats started at their own 45 after the opening kickoff. After a 15 yard penalty against the Saints, Berg hit Will Gillach for 23 yards. The Wildcats were penalized for a false start. Parks ran 22 yards for a touchdown and, after Bryce Thompson’s extra point, the Wildcats led 7-0. The Saints went on an 11 play drive that ate up some clock.
On third and one from the Wildcat 2 yard line, Saint John Santiago took a handoff. Virga ripped the ball out of Santiago’s hands and ran 98 yards the other way for a Wildcat touchdown to put the Wildcats up 13-0 with 6:30 left in the first quarter. It marked the third time this season Virga has stolen the ball and the second time he scored a touchdown when doing so. The Wildcats recovered the ball on the ensuing kickoff. After a 15 yard pass interference penalty on the Saints, the Wildcats had a first down on the Saints’ 19 yard line. Virga took the ball from Berg, headed upfield and scored to give the Wildcats a 19-0 lead with 6:11 remaining in the quarter.
It looked like a blowout in the making. But St. Francis kept plugging way. At the end of a nine play drive on the Saints’ next possession, Santiago scored to cut the Wildcat lead to one touchdown. The Wildcats began their next “drive” on their own 30 yard line. On first down, Berg passed the ball to Virga and Virga did the rest, racing 70 yards for his third touchdown of the quarter and a 25-6 Wildcat lead. 2:41 still remained in the quarter. The Saints began their next drive at the Wildcat 45 and moved the ball to the Wildcat 1 as the first quarter finally ended. Gust scored on the first play of the second quarter and ran for the two point conversion to cut the Wildcat lead to 25-14. On the ensuing kickoff, Saints’ kicker Lance Lemke tried a pooch kick but mis-hit the ball and popped it up ten feet in the air.
The ball only traveled about seven yards downfield. A Wildcat player touched the ball and the Saints recovered. Nine plays later, Gust scored on a five yard run and again ran for the two pointer, cutting the Wildcat lead to 25-22 with just over seven minutes left in the first half. The next kickoff was more conventional and Jake McKenzie returned the ball to the Wildcat 36. On just the fifth Wildcat offensive play of the game and the first one of the second quarter, Parks went in motion left to right. He stopped, took a handoff from Berg and headed up the middle through a nice hole. He cut right, headed toward the sideline, beat the last Saints’ defender to the angle at the Saints’ 30 and ran all the way to the end zone, scoring just 20 seconds after the Saint’s previous score.
After Thompson’s extra point, the Wildcats led 32-22. But the Saints answered with yet another nine play drive. Gust did most of the work, Santiago scored from six yards out and, after a failed two pointer, the Wildcat lead was cut to 32-28. Gillach returned the ensuing kickoff to the Wildcat 42. Two runs by fullback Kaleb Paehlke sandwiched around an incomplete pass gave the Wildcats a first down at the Saint’s 35. Gillach ran a post pattern and got behind the St. Francis defense by a couple of steps. Berg dropped a perfect pass into Gillach’s arms in stride at the 15 and Gillach motored into the end zone for a 38-28 lead with 1:14 left in the half. And, of course, the scoring wasn’t done. The Saints started from their own 35 and ran ten plays, including seven passes, in just one minute of clock time.
On second down from the Wildcat 16, Trautman threw to the front left corner of the end zone. Santiago made a sensational diving catch for a touchdown. He also ran for the two pointer to cut the Wildcat lead to 38-36 with ten seconds left in the half. And the Wildcat nearly scored again. The Saints had to kick off from their own 25 after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the Wildcats took over at the Saint 47 with 5 seconds left in the half. The Wildcats set up a beautiful screen to the left with nothing but blockers and wide open spaces in front of Parks, but Berg threw the ball into the grass at Parks’ feet and the Wildcats had to settle for a two point halftime lead. The Saints began the third quarter at their own 29 and took half the period off the clock with a 13 play drive against a tired Wildcat defense.
On third and two from the Wildcats 48, Schroeder got three steps behind the Wildcat defensive backs and Trautman hit him in stride at the 25. Schroeder waltzed into the end zone. The Wildcats stuffed Santiago on the two point conversion and the Saints led for the first time in the game, 42-38. On the Wildcats’ ensuing drive, Virga and Parks each had runs of over 30 yards to help move the ball deep into Saints’ territory. Virga got the call on fourth and goal from the two, but was stuffed at the one and the Saints took over on down with 3:17 left in the third quarter. The Wildcat defense came up big on the next series, forcing the Saints into their first three and out of the day.
After a short punt, the Wildcats took over on their own 49 yard line. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Wildcats faced third and seven at the 46. Berg drilled the ball to Luke McKenzie cutting across the middle at the 25. McKenzie broke a tackle and scored. On the two point conversion, Parks headed around right end. He blasted a Saints’ cornerback with his shoulder at the two and stepped inside the corner flag for two points. The Wildcats now led 46-42. The Saints’ went on a 14 play drive. On third and five from the 24, Paehlke stuffed Gust up the middle for no gain. A fourth down pass fell incomplete and the Wildcats had stopped the Saints’ for the second time in a row. But the Saints’ actually stopped the Wildcats three and out and, after Michael Dunne’s punt, took over on their own with 5:09 left in the game.
They went on their seventh drive of nine plays or more. The eleven play drive took over three minutes off the clock. On fourth and three from the 34, Trautman hit Schroeder with a short pass to the right. He took advantage of some good blocking and ran all the way down the right sideline to the end zone for a touchdown. The pass for two points was successful and the Saints’ led 50-46 with 1:45 remaining. The Wildcats started the next drive at their own 33 and, not surprisingly, the moved the ball quickly down the field. A pass interference penalty and passes to Dunne and McKenzie put the Wildcats at second and four at the Saints’ 28. Berg dropped back to pass and rolled right. Dunne was breaking open at the 20 and a Saints defensive back grabbed his jersey. Berg threw and, with the Saints’ player still hanging on, Dunne made the catch. As another Saint closed in, Dunne broke free and raced to the end zone for a touchdown.
The Wildcats did not convert the two pointer and led 52-50 with 1:08 left in the game. Three plays later, on first and 10 from the Wildcat 43, Trautman dropped back to pass. He hoisted a bomb over the middle, but the ball sailed over the receiver’s head and Parks intercepted it at the six with 49 seconds left in the game. St. Francis used their last two timeouts after the Wildcats’ next two plays to set the stage for third and one at the fifteen with 37 seconds left. Parks took the handoff to the right and headed for the sideline. After gaining six yards, he slid down in bounds even though it looked like he might have been able to score on the play. The clock started running after the ball was set, Berg took the snap and knelt down and the game finally ended with the Wildcats on top 52-50.
After the game, Parks was asked why he didn’t just keep running at the end to possibly score another touchdown. He said “The coaches told us we needed one first down to get the game over with. Once I had the first down, I just went down because I knew that was all we needed.” Weiss praised his star running back for making a good decision. “Josh is a smart football player,” he said. “We talked about those situations. If he had scored there and we didn’t make the conversion, we would have only been up by eight and, with a little under 30 seconds left, they would have still had a chance to tie the game. Josh is the type of player who knows what needs to be done to get the win.” St. Francis had possession of the ball for 38 of the 48 minutes in the game, which led to a worn out Wildcat defense.
Weiss said “It presents a unique challenge when you score that fast. St. Francis took a tremendous amount of snaps and plays very physically and we are a bit undersized up front. But the bottom line is we needed to stop them and we didn’t do that at all in the first half. What a crazy game. I haven’t seen too many like that. It’s a good thing the offense was scoring as they were.” Weiss talked about some of the key players in the big win. “Virga clearly has a knack for stealing the ball,” he said. “The results speak for themselves. He’s a very talented defensive player and one of our leading tacklers. He now has four defensive touchdowns this year. And Mitch Berg threw touchdown passes to four different receivers. He doesn’t just zero in on one particular guy and he’s very accurate. There’s a lot of mutual trust between Mitch and the receivers. Mitch is very confident in all of them and, likewise, they are confident in him. The offensive line gets a lot of credit for giving Mitch the protection he needed to make those throws. And Mike Dunne made a great catch and great run for our final touchdown. The way that game was going, I almost wished we had taken a little more time to score. But Parks came up with the late interception and we just had to run out the clock after that.”
As expected, Bemidji crushed Duluth East 42-6 on Tuesday night, so the Lumberjacks (7-2) will be heading down to Chisago Lakes High School to take on the Wildcats (7-1) in the Section 7AAAAA semifinals this Saturday at 3 p.m. In last year’s section final, Bemidji came from behind to beat the Wildcats 31-29 in Lindstrom. Weiss said “We have a little familiarity with them from playing them last year, but they’ve got a number of new key players. The coaching staff is the same and they run a kind of a spread option with a 60-40 run-to-pass ratio. It will be a great matchup. It’s another big challenge to overcome and get us a step closer to where we want to be.”