November 25, 2020 at 12:36 p.m.
It was unusual circumstances around nearly the whole season. The boys had their season delayed, then jump-started, then the final two regular season games cancelled, before playing a section game, only to be told a few days before that game that it would be their last as the football season was shutting down again.
But Voss preached to them all year to have pride in the way they play the game and the way they handle the adversity that came their way, and that quality came through in a resilient, resounding and thrilling 40-36 win over Cloquet in the first, and last, round of sections.
“There was a lot of pride there on that team,” Voss said of his squad. “To come back and prepare for a game with two days and then go out and win this battle. They should be very proud of that game and the season they had. They played with a sense of family, an attitude and with maximum effort.”
The deck was stacked against North Branch heading into the game. They had missed two weeks prior to the game because they were in quarantine. They had a week of virtual meetings, and then two actual practice days before taking on Cloquet, a team that had beat North Branch earlier this year and who hadn’t missed a game at all so far this season.
The game began with Cloquet on offense, and the North Branch defense came out on fire, forcing a punt after a three and out.
On North Branch’s first drive, they started out well for a few plays before a penalty stuck them in third and 14, which is a tough down for this offense. They handed it off, figuring they were in good enough position to go for it on fourth down if they got close, but they didn’t even see fourth down, as Ashton LaBelle burst through the line for a 14 yard gain to keep the drive churning along.
Another 14 yard run on the next play moved the Vikes even deeper into Cloquet territory. On first and goal from the 10 yard line, quarterback Andrew Thauwald took a keeper to the right side and broke two tackles on his way to the end zone, scoring the first touchdown of the game. LaBelle made good on the two point conversion, putting NB up 8-0.
In the first match up of the season, Cloquet used the big play to beat NB, and Voss really wanted to limit that coming into this game. His best laid plans went awry though on the Jacks first play of their season drive. A counter hand off in the middle and a nice move from the Cloquet back led to a 63 yard rush that brough them all the day down to North Branch’s two yard line. They punched in a touchdown on the next play to trim the lead to 8-6. Cloquet’s two point attempt was good and the game was knotted at 8-8.
North Branch struck back with a couple big plays of their own. They brought back their kick return fake reverse that was a staple a few years ago but they didn’t do as much recently. That resulted in a long kick return that allowed them to start in Cloquet territory.
On the second play of the drive, LaBelle ripped off a 30 yard gain down to the Lumberjacks’ 12 yard line. Two plays later, LaBelle weaved his way through the defense for a seven yard touchdown. He also converted the two point conversion, giving NB a 16-8 lead.
The Cloquet offense got moving again, and moved all the way down to North Branch’s 29 yard line, but a series of mistakes cost them dearly. They committed a holding penalty on first and 10, pushing them back to the 40 yard line. After an incomplete pass, North Branch’s defense stuffed Cloquet for a five yard loss on a rushing attempt, pushing them to a third and 26 on the 45 yard line. They only gained two yards on that down and it forced a punt, as they were trying to play the field position game.
That backfired on them when North Branch marched down the field on a 10 play, 90 yard drive. Highlights of the drive were a 31 yard Labelle run and a 12 yard keeper from Thauwald. The scoring drive was capped off by a Loghan Croal touchdown run from three yards out. LaBelle hit his third two point conversion of the game, and the Vikes suddenly found themselves up 24-8.
On the ensuing drive, Cloquet came out firing a pass, which caught NB off guard a bit, resulting in a 16 yard gain. From there, the Jacks moved slowly down the field, staying ahead of the chains and milking the halftime clock down as much as they could to leave no time for NB. Cloquet’s two pointer was good and they sliced the lead to 24-16.
North Branch started with the ball in the second half and was working well early. They had back-to-back first down runs and had moved past midfield and into Cloquet territory. However, they fumbled the ball and the Lumberjacks recovered for a huge momentum swing. They hit paydirt on their drive, with a 10-play drive capped off with a 14 yard touchdown run on third and 10. Their two point attempt was good, and just like that, the game was tied back up 24-24.
But, North Branch answered with their suddenly quick strike offense. After a small play on first down, Thauwald hit a 20 yard run before LaBelle took it to the house from 41 yards out for his second touchdown of the game. He made good on the two point conversion as well, giving NB a 32-24 lead.
The defense looked to be up to the task on the next drive, forcing Cloquet into a tough third and 17 situation, but their quarterback connected with a back who came out uncovered and he streaked down the left sideline for a 50 yard gain. A few plays later, the same pair connected on a five yard touchdown pass, but North Branch finally held firm on the two point attempt, with Cloquet pass attempt falling in the back of the endzone, so the Vikes still held a 32-30 lead. Cloquet tried an onside kick on the next drive, but NB was ready for it, and pounced on it to take over in good field position. LaBelle, who was an animal on the ground for the Vikings, took off for a 21 yard gain on the second play of the drive, and then Thauwald ended the drive just a few plays later with a 17 yard rushing touchdown.
With the game into the fourth quarter at this point, the two point conversion was huge. At the time, NB had a 38-30 lead but any points would stretch it to a two-score game. The Vikings went with their bread and butter counter play into the middle of the defense with LaBelle and the offensive line did a great job clearing space as he waltz in for a 40-30 NB advantage.
But, disaster struck on the first play of Cloquet’s ensuing drive. Their talented running back escaped to the outside of the NB cornerback and raced for a 57 yard gain inside of North Branch’s 10 yard line before being tracked down. Four plays later, Cloquet scored a touchdown on fourth and goal, getting themselves right back in the game. They again missed their two point conversion and the game stood at 40-36 in favor of NB.
The offense for NB took the field, and although they had been running up and down the field all night, Cloquet’s defense was up to the task on this drive. They forced a three and out and the Vikes had to punt the ball back to the ‘Jacks with a chance to win the game. However, they had to make their way 78 yards to the endzone after a nice punt from NB.
Facing short time, Cloquet took over and promptly rushed 12 yards for a first down. However, a short pass and a run got them nowhere and forced a third down. The Cloquet quarterback however drilled his receiver for a 13 yard gain to keep the drive alive.
The Jacks were trying to mix runs in with their passing game, since that isn’t their strong suit, but it was only gaining small chunks of yards as the clock ticked down. They eventually moved all the way down to North Branch’s 35 yard lin with a second and three play, but North Branch’s defense forced a loss of three yard on the next play. It was an amazing individual effort from Logan Murphy. On third and six, Cloquet committed a false start penalty, forcing them into an even longer attempt. Back-to-back incomplete passes fell harmlessly to the ground, giving NB the ball back with less than 30 seconds to go. Thauwald took a knee on the last play of the game and NB wrapped up the victory 40-36.
Voss was really impressed with how his kids played this game, as well as adjustments they made from the first game. Two point conversions had been tough to come by for NB this year against tough opponents, yet that was the difference in this game as the Vikings were five-for-five and Cloquet was three-for-five.
“We just gave Cloquet some different looks and I think it caught them off guard. We focused on the importance of conversions because we felt it could come down to that.”
The ending left an odd feeling for the staff and players. It’s not often you can end a high school season with a win. That usually means you won the state title.
But, there was the jubilation of the thrilling win and also the realization that it was the final high school game for the seniors. “It was an odd feeling, but these are odd times,” Voss explained. “I think, for our team, we felt good about how things ended. To end with a win is a great feeling and it’s great for the departing seniors.”
Voss went on to explain how tough this team stayed despite the set backs. “We faced adversity at every corner through this process, but guys stayed positive, even when we missed games. And that comes down from the seniors. They knew it was their last year playing and they led in a proud, positive way.
“This isn’t their last impression, they are leaving a lasting impression on this program and the sense of family that they helped create. They’ll look back on the crazy time of playing football during a world wide pandemic and they came in, practiced, put in the effort and helped boost the North Branch football program.”