November 12, 2021 at 12:21 p.m.
They were 9-0 and had won close games, blowouts and everything in between. They were the top seed in Section 7AAAA and were well-rested going into their section championship game against Grand Rapids last week.
But, everything unraveled against the Thunderhawks as they scored a late touchdown to take a 14-12 lead over North Branch and held on for the victory, earning their berth to state and denying North Branch a ticket to the most prestigious football tournament in Minnesota.
North Branch’s gameplan started out perfectly. They forced the Thunderhawks to punt on their first possession. Then on offense, they started with the most North Branch drive possible. It was a 16-play, 65 yard masterpiece that featured a bevy of different runners from Ashton LaBelle to Sam Sonnek to Sam Robillard to Andrew Thauwald. They used a hard count to perfection for a first down on a fourth and four. They threw a pass near the goal line that drew a pass interference call, and even after they had a holding call bring back their initial score, they still pounded it in on the next play using their misdirection rushing attack.
The first touchdown came from Thauwald’s legs from 11 yards out. They attempted a pass for the two point conversion and it floated just over the intended receivers head to keep NB’s lead at 6-0.
“It was a dream start for us,” Head Coach Justin Voss said. “To force a punt and then go down and score on our first drive was key early for us.”
A strong return from Rapids had them start their next possession from just past midfield, and that’s when the defense, which has been prone to big plays, gave up a 49 yard rushing touchdown to GR’s Morgan Macleod-Carlson. Grand Rapids extra point was good, and they took a 7-6 lead over the Vikings.
On NB’s ensuing possession, they kept their offensive momentum rolling. Robillard ripped off a big gain on first down, and then a few plays later, Thauwald called his own number and executed a perfect fake, taking the ball down the left side of the field untouched for a 49-yard touchdown run.
In what ended up being a massive play, LaBelle looked like he had a clear path to the end zone for the two point conversion, but he was tripped up at the last second and came up just short. That gave NB a 12-7 lead over the Hawks.
The NB defense came up big on their next drive though, forcing a three and out from the Thunderhawks. But, their punter boomed a big kick that took a nice bounce and really flipped the field position battle. North Branch quickly erased that advantage though by moving down the field with their vaunted rushing attack again. Rapids limited the big plays, but North Branch was consistently gaining three to five yards a play, and they were able to stay ahead of the sticks.
They moved the ball all the way down to Grand Rapids’ 20 yard line, and faced a third and two, which is almost automatic with this offense seeing as they had two cracks at it. But, LaBelle, a top 10 rusher in the state, was stuffed twice in a row and the Vikings, despite putting together an impressive drive, turned the ball over on downs to the Thunderhawks.
Grand Rapids was short time, however, so they had to resort to their passing game. When they had two incomplete passes, North Branch was able to force a punt with 32 seconds left. With the punter standing at his own five yard line, LaBelle came oh-so-close to blocking the punt, nearly getting a hand on it before it got off clean. It took a huge GR bounce, and North Branch attempted one run before running out the half.
With the five point lead, the Vikings were to receive the second half kickoff, and their offense worked hard again to move it down into Rapids’ territory. The grinded their way in, and eventually got down inside the 10 yard line when the Hawk defense stiffened again. The Vikings were in a third and four situation and a hard count by Thauwald got a Grand Rapids defensive end to jump, which would’ve gotten NB a fresh set of downs, but on the other side of the line, North Branch had a false start that sent them back five yards instead. Facing fourth and nine, Thauwald dropped back to pass, but GR was expecting it and defended it well as the ball fell incomplete, leaving NB stunned with their second deep drive resulting in no points.
It didn’t take long for Grand Rapids to move out of the shadow of their own end zone, as they broke a big run on the first play after the turnover on downs, and then a few plays later broke another one that brough them down to NB’s five yard line.
But, North Branch had a defensive stand in their arsenal as well. After getting down to the three yard line, Rapids thought they scored on two different plays, but they committed penalties on both plays and eventually had a fourth and goal from the 15 yard line. NB’s defense snuffed out their pass attempt and they had their own huge stop on defense.
A discombobulated drive on offense followed that included a fumble resulted in a three and out for the Vikings and a punt that just got past midfield, giving the Thunderhawks good field position with just under 10 minutes left in the game.
With Grand Rapids driving, they decided to go for it all and threw a deep pass. North Branch corner Ryan O’Day was waiting for it and tracked the ball down and picked it off for what was the biggest defensive play of the season for NB to that point. He returned it out to the Vikings’ own 15 yard line, and gave the offense a chance to put together another long, grinding drive and run some clock.
The Vikings’ got one first down, but then the Grand Rapids’ defense were able to snuff out their rushing attempts on the next three plays and force an NB punt with over three minutes left.
“Grand Rapids has a really big and physical defense, and after that first half, they really settled in and started to wear down some of our players,” Voss said. “I don’t think they changed much from first half to second half on defense, they are just very tough to play against.”
On the first play, North Branch forced Grand Rapids back three yards, setting up a tough second and 13. On second down, Rapids pitched the ball to the right side and would’ve had just a nice gain, putting them in third down, but their running back Owen Glenn made a beautiful cut back move, going all the way back to the left side of the field and racing away from many NB defenders for a 50 yard gain. A horse collar tackle at the end of the play tacked on another 10 yards and suddenly Rapids had the ball inside of NB’s 10 yard line. It took them just one play to score and their extra point was good, putting them up 14-12 with 2:46 left in the game.
North Branch started out the penultimate drive with a nice couple of runs and a first down to midfield. But, a miscommunication on their next rush left Thauwald with no one to hand it to and him running out of bounds and losing yards for the Vikes.
On second and 12, Thauwald tossed one up for Adam Johnstone who nearly made a circus catch down the sideline, but it squirted out at the last second putting NB in a dangerous third and 12 spot.
A throwback screen on third down got six yards back for NB, and it was close to being bigger, but the Rapids’ defender made a nice tackle. On fourth and seven, the Vikings tried a halfback pass and again got the receiver open but the pass just skipped off his hands, falling incomplete and turning the ball over on downs to the Thunderhawks with a minute and a half left.
LaBelle did nearly the unthinkable for the Vikings though. Rapids essentially just needed to hold on to the ball to end the game, but the senior linebacker shot a gap on second down and met the running back right as he was getting the handoff. LaBelle knocked the ball loose and it bounced around near the line of scrimmage before a Grand Rapids lineman fell on it just a split second before North Branch could recover it and get a new life.
“Those types of plays just show that our team and our guys just never gave up and had the right attitude and effort throughout this game and throughout the season,” Voss explained.
On the next play, though, Rapids converted on third down and that essentially ended the game. Two kneel downs ensued and North Branch’s perfect season was ended and their dreams crushed.
“That hurts for the guys and it’s still stinging for me,” Voss lamented. “All the work they’ve put in came to these moments and it came up just short. It’s definitely hard and our guys realized after just how close we were, and it really stings.”