November 7, 2019 at 2:37 p.m.
Quarterback Will Saueressig, subbing for an injured Nick Wasko, directed two second half scoring drives – both ending in touchdowns by Cole Peterson - to lead the Wildcats to a 28-16 win over the Hermantown Hawks in the Section 7AAAA championship game last Friday, November 1 at North Branch High School. The Wildcats (5-6) will play St. Paul Academy/Minnehaha Academy/Blake (SMB) (10-0) in the quarterfinals of the Class AAAA state tournament this Saturday at Centennial High School in Circle Pines.
Wasko injured his hand on the last full series of the first half and was held out of the second half as a precaution. The injury turned out to be a bruise, so Wasko is scheduled to start against SMB this Saturday.
Ryan Sanvik fielded the opening kickoff at his own 18 and returned it straight up the middle through a nice hole all the way to the Hermantown 43-yard line. The Wildcats took just six plays to score. On third and 13 from the 36, Kaleb Bruce took a pitch right and gained 17 yards for a first down at the 19. On the next play, David Kimlinger took a pitch to the left and won the race to the front left corner of the end one, diving across the goal line for a touchdown. Spencer Nelson hit the extra point and the Wildcats led 7-0.
The Hawks started their opening drive at their own 37-yard line. On third and two from the Wildcat 42, quarterback Peter Soumis threw the ball over the middle to an open receiver at the 32. The ball skipped off the receiver’s hands, right into the arms of Sanvik. The speedy Sanvik returned the ball down the right sideline all the way to the Hermantown 30-yard line, giving the Wildcats great field position. On second and seven from the 27, Owen Dresel took a pitch left and ran down to the nine. On second and goal from the five, Wasko faked a pass to the right, kept the ball and pinballed his way into the end zone for a touchdown. After Nelson’s extra point, the Wildcats led 14-0.
Starting at their own 31, the Hawks went on a 12-play drive, moving the ball all the way down to the Wildcat three-yard line, mostly on the legs of Soumis – and with help from a 15-yard personal foul penalty against the Wildcats. After an incompletion and a stuff by the Wildcat defensive line, the Hawks were still at the three on third down. Soumis rolled right and took off for the goal line. He was hit right before the goal line and fumbled just into the end zone. Andrew Kohler dove on the ball and cradled it for a touchback, preserving the Wildcats’ two-touchdown lead.
The Wildcats moved the ball out to midfield before they were forced to punt. Zach Mueller’s punt was perfect, rolling dead at the Hawk two-yard line. The Wildcats forced a three and out and took over at the Hawk 32 after a nice return by Easton Morrison, with a chance to put the game nearly out of reach. On fourth and one from the 23, Dresel was stuffed on a run up the middle and the Hawks took over on downs. They went on a ten-play drive, with most of the yards coming from the arm of Soumis. The drive stalled at the Wildcat eight, and Kaden Kucza hit a 25-yard field goal just before halftime to cut the Wildcat lead to 14-3.
The Hawks made the game a lot more interesting on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. Starting from their own 27, Soumis ran through a big hole up the middle, broke a tackle at the 50 and ran down the left sideline. Sanvik closed fast and nearly caught Soumis at the five, but Soumis shook off the tackle and went into the end zone standing up. The Wildcats stuffed the two-point conversion attempt, but the Hawks had cut the lead to 14-9.
The Wildcats recovered the ensuing kickoff at their own 46. Was it onside, squib or just a bad kick? Who knows, but it gave the Wildcats great field position. On fourth and two from the Hawk 33, Kimlinger ran left and got the first down as he was knocked out of bounds. Bruce ran nine yards to give the Wildcats a first down at the 20. On the next play, Peterson took a pitch left and scored easily. But a holding penalty near the end of the play moved the ball back to the 15, although it was still a first down for the Wildcats. On third and 11 from the 16, Bruce took a pitch right and got a first down at the five. On the next play, Saueressig pitched left to Peterson. He broke a tackle at the five and dove into the front left corner of the end zone for a touchdown. This time it counted. After an ugly, line drive extra pint made it over the crossbar, the Wildcats led 21-9.
The Hawks started the ensuing drive at their own 24 and moved the ball downfield both running and passing. A terrible pass interference call in the end zone helped, as well. On the first play of the fourth quarter, fullback Robbie Thorsten went over from the one and, after the extra point, the Wildcat lead was cut to 21-16. The ensuing Wildcat drive stalled at midfield. The Wildcats barely avoided disaster on the punt play. The snap was low and bounced toward Mueller. But he calmly fielded it cleanly and got off the punt. The Hawks returned it to their own 24 with 3:45 left in the game.
The Wildcat defense came up big. On fourth and ten from the 24, a pass from Soumis fell incomplete and the Wildcats took over on downs with 2:11 left in the game. On second and 16 from the 30, Peterson took a handoff right, squeezed through a small hole at the line and ran to the end zone for his second touchdown of the game, sealing the win. The Hawks did move the ball on the last drive but ran out of time after a desperation heave fell incomplete with a few seconds left. The Wildcats lined up in victory formation and Saueressig knelt the ball down to end the game, and the celebration began.
Wildcat head coach Bill Weiss praised the work of his backup quarterback. He said “Will made real good decisions in leading us to those two second half scoring drives. He has spent the entire year on the bench, and he was next up in our ‘next man up’ philosophy. We needed him to come through and he played an excellent half of football. It’s almost a storybook sort of a game for him to get that opportunity at that moment with a lot of things hanging in the balance.”
What was going through Saueressig’s head coming into a close game? He said “I prepared all week. Mentally, I was there. I didn't get the reps, but I'm a senior so I've been through this. I know the offense." Was he nervous? "A little bit,” said Saueressig. “I knew going into halftime, so I had to wait, but I've prepared for this for 10-12 years. Monday mornings in the weight room, people would be like 'you're too small, why are you even doing this?' It's worth it now, baby. It's worth it."
Weiss also talked about Paul Blake. He said “Paul played a lights out game at defensive end. He played at another level. He was a consistent bright spot for what we were trying to do on Friday night.” As for Peter Soumis, the Hermantown quarterback, Weiss said “We saw on film a very talented, very elusive quarterback and he certainly showed that on Friday night. Some of the things he did were not designed plays. He just gets flushed, runs around and you don’t know where he’s going to be. What was the Wildcat game plan to deal with Soumis? Blake said "Just to maintain the outside. If he escaped outside, it was game over. Stick to your gap and hopefully everyone does their job and he doesn't escape up the middle." What was going through Blake’s mind as things got tight near the end of the game? He said “You just have to keep your composure in those moments. A lot of stuff can happen. You have people screaming and everything going on. We just had to keep our heads in the game."
Weiss discussed the state of his team as they head off to the state championship playoffs. He said “Obviously, at the end of the game there was a pretty big celebration. Our confidence is high, and our overall health hasn’t been better since the season started. That’s a credit to the training staff and guys working hard to put themselves in position to return. We need to give the whole team credit here. A lot of things fell together in the right place for us and we are having fun.”
The Wildcats got a number of their injured players back in the last couple of weeks, including Kimlinger, Peterson and lineman Connor Bleymeyer. Bleymeyer played a lot both ways on Friday night. How did he get ready for a big workload after being out so long? He said “A lot of weight room work, a lot of running and just keeping my endurance up. I just stayed with the boys and stayed mentally focused even when I was out. I was a little tired by the end, since it's hard to be in game shape right away, but it's the greatest feeling ever. Words can't describe how I'm feeling right now."
Owen Dresel was asked, as a leader on the defense, what he was feeling as Hermantown started to creep back into the game. Dresel said “I tell my guys when I'm out there to just do your job and read your keys. That's what we practice and that's how we play. Just be consistent, stay the course and everything else will take care of itself." On offense, Dresel had aggressive finishes on many of his carries. He said “Every yard counted. I always try to give my best for the team because I know they do for me. The last extra yards are what makes the difference and that intensity spreads to everyone else on the team and that's what helps us be successful."
SMB won the state Class AAAA tournament last season, and this year’s roster includes Jalen Suggs, one of the top recruits in the state in both football and basketball, along with three other legitimate Division 1 prospects. Weiss said “They certainly have a lot of talent. But I also think we have some things going for us. They played a completely different regular season schedule from us, so it’s hard to tell how we compare. I believe our regular season schedule prepares us for opportunities like this. We’re facing a good football team with good talent. We won’t know how we compare until we set foot on the field. That’s high school football.”