September 10, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
After what felt like an eternity of no football—without sections and state last year— the North Branch football team kicked off the 2021 season Friday, September 3 in front of the home crowd against Pine City.
It’s an exciting season for the Vikings, and one that they should be competitive in, and it showed with an early 32-6 drubbing of the green-and-black clad Dragons.
Donning new black threads for their home opener, the Vikings received the opening kickoff and got to start on their own 35 after Pine City booted it out of bounds.
Senior running back Ashton LaBelle ripped off a 28 yard run to start the drive on a beautifully blocked play, but a botched snap on the ensuing play put a quick halt to NB’s opening drive.
After committing a five yard penalty on the opening play, the North Branch defense looked downright fearsome on the opening drive.
The Dragon offense looked disjointed against NB’s front, recovering their own fumble for a five yard loss and missing a handoff, leaving the quarterback on an island for a three yard loss, bringing up a fourth and 11 and a punt.
Bruising back Sam Sonnek started the next drive with an eight yard run followed by a 17 yard rush from Sam Robillard.
After a few more short rushing plays and a penalty on Pine City, LaBelle had another nifty run, squeezing through a small hole for a 24 yard burst, bringing North Branch inside the 15 yard line.
Quarterback Andrew Thauwald called his own number on the next play, rushing for 10 yards, inside the five, before LaBelle punctuated the drive with a three yard touchdown run to put NB up 6-0. He made good on the two point conversion as well.
Pine City started to get their offense going on the next drive, using a varied rushing attack. They moved all the way down inside of the Vikings’ 30 yard line, but then a fumbled snap followed by a sack by NB’s Tyler Schneidewind and another negative rushing play put the Dragons in fourth and long on NB’s 45 yard line. They decided to punt away.
North Branch’s next drive showed how effective their running game will be this year. Sonnek, LaBelle and Thauwald all ripped off big gains on the drive, and Robillard got a couple carries in the middle as well. It culminated in another LaBelle touchdown, this one from 15 yards out, as he broke multiple tackles on his way to the highlight worthy score. Thauwald scored the two point conversion to extend NB’s lead to 16-0.
The Vikings tried to surprise Pine City with an onside kick, but they were ready and pounced on the loose ball at midfield. The Dragons were again able to move the ball, but after getting it inside of NB’s redzone, the Viking defense stood tall again, forcing a fourth down attempt that they stuffed for a turnover on downs.
The Vikings continued their offensive march on the next drive, but after a holding call, found themselves in a third and long from Pine City’s 37. Thauwald dropped back to pass and delivered an absolute strike to LaBelle who had strafed out of the backfield, and it would’ve been an easy touchdown, but the senior back just couldn’t corral the pass looking over his shoulder.
On the ensuing fourth down play, the Pine City defense knocked a Thauwald pass down, turning the Vikings over on downs, but luckily for NB, the clock was ticking on halftime and the Dragons only got off two plays before the buzzer sounded, sending NB into the locker room up 16-0.
Pine City started the second half with the ball but quickly went three and out on offense before punting the ball away.
North Branch got behind the chains quickly with a illegal chop block penalty on first down, but chunk yardage rushes got them back into a first down position.
Head coach Justin Voss faced his first big decision of the game when he had a fourth and three just across midfield. With how well the offense was running, he gave it to LaBelle, who just got past the first down marker for a fresh set of downs. LaBelle made that decision worth it, with a zig-zagging 27 yard run on the next play.
But, after moving all the way down to the four yard line, the Vikings fumbled the quarterback-halfback handoff and Pine City jumped on the ball, recording their second turnover of the game, this one very costly as NB was on the doorstep to scoring.
The Viking defense stood tall, though, forcing Pine City to punt from its own endzone after going three and out.
On the ensuing punt, the Vikings returned it down to the 22 yard line and Ryan O’Day quickly made the Dragons pay with a touchdown run. Thauwald found tight end Jackson Marcussen for the two point conversion, extending NB’s lead to 24-0.
The North Branch defense continued to play very well, forcing another Pine City punt, but on North Branch’s next possession, they lost another fumble at midfield, giving Pine City the ball at their own 49.
The Dragons finally broke through, taking the very next play to the house on a rush to the left side for their first score of the night. They missed the two point conversion, leaving the score at 24-6 in favor of NB.
On the Vikings next drive, LaBelle ripped off two big runs before Thauwald raced down the left sideline for a 25 yard gain that put the ball at Pine City’s seven yard line. LaBelle finished the drive with a seven yard touchdown run, his third of the night, and then converted on the two point conversion as well. It gave NB a 32-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter, and with Pine City’s ground oriented attack, it essentially put the game out of reach.
The Dragons tried one last drive, but were stifled again by the swarming North Branch defense, allowing the offense to get back on the field and run the clock out on the win.
The opener was a great one for North Branch, as they ran for over 300 yards as a team, with LaBelle accounting for 203 of them to go along with his three scores.
Thauwald had 65 yards on just six carries, and Sonnek had over 50 yards as well.
The defense contained Pine City well outside of the long touchdown run, and answered despite three turnovers from the offense.
The Vikings will stay at home this weekend and host Duluth East, Friday, September 10 at 7 p.m. The Greyhounds absolutely walloped the Hibbing Bluejackets in their opener 54-8. East was up 54-0 in the third quarter before taking their foot off the pedal and coasting to a win.