October 31, 2013 at 2:09 p.m.

Wildcats give Lumberjacks the axe, unbeaten Brainerd awaits with a trip to state on the line

Chisago Lakes earns redemption, ending Bemidji's season in the section semi-finals a year after the Jacks ended CL's in the section championship
Wildcats give Lumberjacks the axe, unbeaten Brainerd awaits with a trip to state on the line
Wildcats give Lumberjacks the axe, unbeaten Brainerd awaits with a trip to state on the line

Michael Dunne’s nine yard touchdown reception from Mitch Berg with 15.7 seconds remaining in the Section 7 semifinal game against third-seeded Bemidji broke a 28-28 tie and gave the second-seeded Wildcats a 35-28 lead. Josh Parks intercepted Bemidji’s Hail Mary pass with three seconds left to seal the victory and send the Wildcats to tomorrow night’s 7 p.m. section championship game against top-seeded Brainerd, at Brainerd. The game was played in front of the Wildcats’ home crowd at Chisago Lakes High School. Brainerd beat fifth-seeded Cambridge-Isanti 35-14 to earn the right to host the section championship game against the Wildcats.

At the outset, it looked like the Wildcats might play their first low scoring game of the year. Bemidji’s Tanner Boes scored the only touchdown of the first quarter, on a five yard run on fourth down, and the Lumberjacks led 7-0 with 6:46 left in the first quarter. The Wildcats started a 15 play scoring drive late in the first quarter. On third and 24 from their own 18, Parks gained 28 yard on a screen pass for a first down. Later in the drive, Jake McKenzie ran for 15 yards to give the Wildcats first down on the 12. On second and six from the eight, Berg kept the ball, hit the hole up the middle and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. After Bryce Thompson’s extra point, the game was tied at 7-7 with 5:52 left in the half.

On the ensuing kickoff, Josh Dutcher stripped the ball away from the Bemidji return man and the Wildcats took over at the Lumberjack 27. On fourth and one at the 19, Berg carried the ball up the middle for four yards and a first down. On third and nine from the 14, Berg hit Parks near the goal line with a pass. Parks broke free and scored a touchdown for the first Wildcat lead of the game, at 14-7, with less than two minutes left in the first half. After stopping the Lumberjacks on their opening possession of the second half, the Wildcats took over at their own 25 with 6:50 left in the third quarter. They took just four plays to move down to the Bemidji 33.

But the Wildcats fumbled on the handoff and Bemidji recovered at the 32. The Lumberjacks went on an 11 play drive. Tanner Boes scored from four yards out to tie the game at 14-14 with 2:32 But the Wildcats struck back quickly. On first down from the Wildcat 34, Berg dropped back and lofted a ball to Joe Virga at the Bemidji 45. Virga caught the ball in stride and ran down to the Bemidji 18 before being tackled. After Berg picked up 10 yards on the next play, Parks took a handoff up the middle, bounced outside right and ran around a well-sealed off right end, scoring easily to give the lead back to the Wildcats with 1:23 left in the quarter. Bemidji started from their own 40 and took just six plays to get into the end zone. Boes scored his third touchdown of the game just one minute into the third quarter to tie things back up at 21-21.

The Wildcats then went on their longest drive of the game, a 13 play drive that started at their own 29 yard line. On fourth down and one inch from the Wildcat 39, Parks took a pitch left and got knocked out of bounds, gaining just enough for the first down. Three plays later, on first and ten from the Bemidji 41, Virga took a handoff, went through a nice hole up the middle, broke a tackle at the 20 and raced into the end zone for an apparent touchdown. But a holding penalty at the 19 negated the touchdown and pushed the Wildcats back to the 29, which was still enough for a first down. Six plays later, Parks took a handoff up the middle, bounced left, cut inside one tackler and beat the rest of the Lumberjack defense to the front left corner of the end zone for a touchdown. This time it counted, and after Thompson’s extra point the Wildcats led 28-21 with 6:49 left in the game.

On the ensuing drive, Bemidji went on a 14 play drive. Midway through the drive, on second and seven from the 50, Hendricks lofted a ball deep into Wildcat territory down the right sideline. Wildcat defensive back Jeremiah Jones leaped high to knock the ball away, nearly coming up with a one-handed interception. Jones said “I didn’t even know I had jumped that high till my teammates told me when I came off the field.” But Bemidji converted the first down on the next play to keep the drive alive. On fourth and two from the Wildcat eight, Boes took a pitch right. He was hit at the five and bulled his way to the one. He scored standing up on the next play, and Bemidji had again tied things up, this time with 2:17 left in the game.

The Wildcats began their 12 play, game-winning drive from their own 31. On second and one from the 40, Berg threw left to a wide open Josh Parks, who looked to have a clear path to the end zone. But Parks started to turn upfield before he secured it and the ball fell incomplete. With 40 seconds remaining, on fourth and four from the Lumberjack 29, Berg hit Luke McKenzie with a pass to the left for a first down. But McKenzie didn’t make it out of bounds before being tackled. The Wildcats lined up quickly and Berg spiked the ball to stop the clock with 30.8 seconds remaining. On second down, Berg rolled left and, seeing all his receivers covered, threw the ball away. On third and ten, Berg hit Will Gillach on a crossing pattern over the middle. Gillach was hauled down at the nine, a yard short of a first down. On fourth and one, Berg dropped back. Running left to right, Dunne got behind the Bemidji defensive backs. Berg threw a perfect pass to Dunne in stride near the back right corner of the end zone and the Wildcats led 35-28 with 15.7 seconds left.

Asked how he got so wide open, Dunne said “They bit on the out, which was the primary route on that play, and the slant was open.” After Parks intercepted the desperation heave from Hendricks, the game was over and Wildcats players, coaches and fans celebrated the win and the chance to play for the section championship for the second year in a row.

Wildcat head coach Bill Weiss said “I think our guys really showed a lot of resilience today. They were a little flat in the first quarter, but they settled into their game and we played a very quality game against a quality opponent. We had one turnover, but we overcame that. We had a gutty performance on both sides of the ball. We made things happen.” Wildcat linebacker Josh Dutcher was a dominating force on defense, making what seemed like every tackle in the game. But he was quick to spread the credit. He said “I was just finishing the tackles. My linemen were making the plays. I’m very excited about going to Brainerd and I know we’re going to finish what we started on Friday.”

Weiss said, “Josh had a whale of a game. He was flying all over. He’s had a big year for us. He’s one of our top tacklers. He showed up big today.” Berg was 13 for 23 passing for 190 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception and one very exciting game-winning drive. Berg, who has become an accomplished passer, said “The o-line’s playing great, they’re giving me time. With the receivers, we’ve gotten our timing down. We were pretty confident when we got the ball back at the end. We did it at St. Francis and we did it here. It was just a fun drive.” Parks went over 100 yards rushing again, carrying the ball 15 times for 101 yards and two touchdowns. And Virga led all Wildcat receivers with five catches for 76 yards.


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