November 4, 2022 at 2:29 p.m.
North Branch exacts revenge against Hawks, moves on to 7AAAA finals
Just three weeks prior, the Hawks had beat North Branch to solidy their hold on the second seed and home field advantage in this match up, but the Vikings wouldn’t be fazed by the large Hermantown crowed that turned out on an unseasonably warm late-October night just off the North Shore, as they escaped with a 28-20 victory to move on to the section championship game against Cloquet this weekend.
North Branch’s defense started on the field and they were playing well, but Hermantown made a couple of nice plays, especially on a fourth and five from midfield. It looked like the Hawks might score on their opening possession when they had first and goal from the North Branch 10 yard line. But after being stuffed on a first down run, the Hawks decided their best bet to score was through the air. The North Branch defense put heavy pressure on the quarterback on all three pass attempts, and all three fell incomplete, giving the Vikings the ball for the first time after a turnover on downs.
Loghan Croal ran for some hard yards on first down, but on the Vikings’ second down play, Vinny Boeck had the ball jarred loose while grinding for extra yards, and Hermantown pounced on the loose ball to grab the first big turnover of the game. Hermantown made good on their turn of fortune and scored on the second play after the fumble on a 15 yard swing pass to the left side. The Hermantown extra point was good and they enjoyed an early 7-0 lead over NB.
It would’ve been easy for the Vikings offense to hang its head after the ugly turnover, but that’s not what they’ve been about all year. They’ve been resilient and effective, and they proved that quickly on their next drive. Quarterback Preston Peterson turned around on NB’s first play and handed it off to Croal and the senior running back sliced right through the heart of the Hermantown defense and took a house call 57 yards to the endzone to score North Branch’s first touchdown of the game. North Branch’s extra point was good and the score was knotted at 7-7.
On Hermantown’s ensuing drive, they ripped off chunks of yardage that the North Branch defense wasn’t used to giving up this year. Hermantown had five gains of more than 10 yards and moved down the field with relative ease before scoring a touchdown on a short dive by their fullback. The Hawks tried to get a bit too cute on their extra point attempt. They faked the try and dropped their holder back to pass but the North Branch defense was right there to bury him and keep the score at 13-7 in favor of Hermantown.
North Branch then took over and although they worked their way down the field, highlighted by a long Peterson run, the Hermantown defense stopped them on a short fourth down attempt deep in Hawk territory to take over on downs.
Hermantown, though, couldn’t do anything with the possession. They nearly connected on a long pass down the sideline, but a nice play by the North Branch defensive back broke it up at the last second, and eventually H’Town punted away to North Branch.
On North Branch’s possession, they took it the length of the field, highlighted by a nice punishing run from Boeck, and then punctuated by a 19 yard touchdown run from Robillard, where the normally powerful runner showed off his finesse and juked a defender out of his shoes on the way to the endzone.
North Branch’s extra point was good and they grabbed a 14-13 lead, which was important because in the two teams first meeting, it was a battle of extra points. North Branch missed Al all of their two point conversion attempts while Hermantown was three-for-three on extra points and won 21-18.
Hermantown tried a couple of passes with short time left before the half, but North Branch had back to back sacks, and that forced the Hawks to just take a knee and end the half.
The Vikings received the second half kickoff and picked the best time to go on one of their most effective drives of the year.
They chewed up eight minutes of clock and just grinded their way down the field against the Hawks. Big plays from Robillard and Croal helped, but Peterson hadn’t been keeping the ball much on the night. The Hawks were really trying to limit the quarterbacks rushing ability, but after 13 handoffs of the 14 plays North Branch ran on the drive, Peterson finally kept it from eight yards out to race through Hermantown’s defense and score his first touchdown of the game. NB’s extra point was good and the Vikings grabbed a 21-13 lead.
The second half continued to go the way of North Branch as their defense forced a punt out of Hermantown pretty quickly into their ensuing drive. A nice play by a defensive back on a pass forced the Hawks into a third and long and they just couldn’t convert.
On North Branch’s next drive, their misdirection on handoffs continued to give the Hawks fits as they were moving the ball five, six and seven yards at a time and not facing any tough downs. Evenutally, Croal ripped a big one off, bowling up the middle and carrying Hermantown defenders with him on a 35 yard rumble down to the six yard line. Robillard finished the Hawk defense off on the next play, going for six yards up the middle for his second score of the game, putting the Vikes up 27-13. Their fourth extra point of the game was good, and the lead extended to 15 points for NB midway through the fourth quarter.
Hermantown took over and did orchestrate a scoring drive that culminated with a 25 yard touchdown pass, but they took a very long time to get into that spot and the clock became North Branch’s best friend at that point. The Hawks extra point was good, and they trailed 28-20.
Hermantown tried an onside kick and it did bounce around a little bit but the Vikings safely recovered it and took over to try and seal the game. The first two plays only gained four yards for the Vikes and they faced a third and six, but an unfortunate false start penalty pushed them to a tough third and 11. Peterson had a tenacious run that gained 10 of it back and it gave Head Coach Justin Voss the choice to go for it since he was already on Hermantowns 46 yard line. The gamble paid off huge as Croal, the false start offender, blasted through the Hermantown line to convert and seal the win for the Vikings.
The win propelled the Vikings to the section championship game on Friday, November 4 in search fo the school’s first ever state tournament berth. The expectation going into the night was that they’d be facing top ranked and undefeated Grand Rapids, but the Thunderhawks were upset by fourth seeded Cloquet, which was huge for NB. They were staring at the prospect of traveling to Rapids for the game, but since they are the higher seed, they now host Cloquet at North Branch Stadium on Friday at 7 p.m.
The Vikings beat Cloquet 40-27 a couple weeks ago, but had a few fortuitous plays that will be hard to replicatelike a Hail Mary and kick return for a touchdown. It will be a tough, northern Minnesota football section final with the ultimate prize at the end for the winner: a state tournament berth.