November 11, 2022 at 11:44 a.m.
Chisago Lakes escapes with a thrilling 43-42 victory over Fridley for their second state berth in four years
After Fridley Tiger quarterback MJ Newton had scored on a 75-yard touchdown run with 35 seconds left in the Section 4AAAA championship game to pull the Tigers within one point of the Wildcats at 43-42, the Tigers decided to go for two rather than kick the extra point and likely go into overtime. Newton, Fridley’s leading rusher for the game, took the shotgun snap and ran to the right. He was still behind the line of scrimmage when he was confronted by three Wildcat tacklers, so he spun right and raced back and to the left. When he got back to the 25, he started to weave his way forward. But the Wildcats swarmed him under at the 16, preserving their one-point lead. After a nearly successful onside kick that was recovered by the Wildcats, Wildcat quarterback Gavin Lewis had to kneel the ball down once to run out the clock, and the third-seeded Wildcats were on their way to the state tournament for the second time in the last four years. The loss ended the season for the top-seeded Tigers. The game was played last Friday, November 4 at Fridley High School. The Wildcats will face the Simley Spartans in the quarterfinals of the state tournament tonight at 7 p.m. at Forest Lake High School.
The game started off with a curious play. The Fridley kicker bounced a kickoff that rolled dead near the left sideline at the Wildcat 23-yard line. Josh Byrne, apparently thinking the ball was going to roll out of bounds, stopped a couple of yards behind it. A Fridley player pounced on it and the Tigers had the ball first and ten on the Wildcat 23. On second down from the 22, Newton hit a wide-open Ben Davis in the end zone for a touchdown, and the Tigers were up 7-0 with the game less than a minute old. After the Wildcats went three and out on their opening drive, a nice punt by Bryce Morley rolled dead at the Fridley five-yard line. The Tigers went on an eight play, 95-yard drive, highlighted by a 10-yard scramble by Newton and a 21-yard jump ball reception at midfield. On second and two from the Wildcat 42, Tykeilan Moore went in motion from right to left in front of Newton. The ball was snapped, and Newton flipped the ball to Moore as he crossed in front of him. Moore did the rest, going around the left corner and outrunning the Wildcat defense into the end zone for a touchdown. Fridley led 14-0 only 3:25 in to the first quarter.
With the Tigers squibbing their kicks down the middle and the Wildcats doing a nice job on returns, the Wildcats started in good field position on nearly every drive. Starting from their own 47, Lewis picked up 11 yards on a keeper. On the next play, Lewis dropped back and threw a pass down the middle to Nate Bluhm.
Bluhm caught it in stride and ran 15 yards to the end zone. After Bryce Morley’s extra point, the Wildcats had cut the Tiger lead to 14-7 with 2:49 left in the first quarter. The Wildcats quickly put themselves in position to tie the game, knocking the ball loose on the first play of Fridley’s ensuing drive and pouncing on it at the 17. But on second and goal from the five, Lewis’ pitch left was a bit behind Carson Langevin, and Langevin couldn’t haul it in. The Tigers recovered on their own ten-yard line.
After one first down, the Wildcat defense forced the Tigers to punt from their own 28, and the Wildcats called for a fair catch on Wildcat 44. The Wildcats proceeded to go on a nine-play drive that ate up over five minutes on the clock, highlighted by consecutive runs of 22 yards and 11 yards by fullback Evan LaValle. On forth and two from the 15, Lewis gained seven yards on a keeper to the right to extend the drive. On first and goal from the eight, LaValle went through a nice hole up the middle and waltzed into the end zone for a touchdown to tie the game at 14-14 with 6:35 left in the second quarter. Fridley started the final drive of the half on their own 42-yard line. The drive included several key plays – a shovel pass, a keeper, and another pass that gave the Tigers a first down on the Wildcat 15. After a holding penalty moved the ball back 12 yards, the Tigers faced third 16 from the 21 and called a timeout with 27.8 seconds left. A pass left and five yard run after the catch moved the ball down to the three with 12 seconds left, and Fridley call their final timeout of the half. Newton took the snap and ran left, right into a wall of Wildcats at the line of scrimmage. He bounced back and ran right, around the Wildcat defense and inside the pylon for a touchdown with 3.7 seconds left in the half. On the extra point attempt – was it a fake or was it planned? – holder Judah Kozicky stood up to grab a high snap, rolled right and lofted a pass to Kerome Thompson in the end zone for a two-point conversion to give Fridley a 22-14 halftime lead.
The third quarter began with a wild sequence of events. After the Wildcats forced a fumble and recovered it on the second play from scrimmage, Wildcat Mason Mehsikomer fumbled it right back on the next play and Fridley had the ball at their own 38. But the Wildcats forced a three and out. Fridley punted from their own 44. A 17-yard punt return and a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the Tigers gave the Wildcats a first down on the Fridley 40. On the first play of the drive, Blake Schmidt took a delayed inside handoff left, cut to the outside and raced toward the flag. Wide receiver Dan Wille’s block at the ten-yard line prevented a Tiger defensive back from making a tackle, and Schmidt ran into the end zone untouched to cut the Tiger lead to two. On the two-point conversion attempt, Lewis hit Bluhm right in the chest in the center of the end zone, but Bluhm dropped the ball, and the Wildcats trailed 22-20. Wildcat head coach Bill Weiss said “Dan Wille has done that a lot this year. To the casual eye, things like wide receivers blocking downfield don’t get noticed. Dan has been very consistent at it and did it all game, as well. And Blake turned on the jets on that play. He is a great playmaker who has had a great year for us, and it’s nice to see him take advantage of that opportunity.”
Starting at their own 28, the Tigers went on a 13-play drive that took over seven minutes off the clock, helped along by two nice scrambles by Newton, a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the Wildcats and a five-yard run by Newton on fourth and two from the Wildcat 27. On fourth and goal from the one, Tykeilan Moore ran it into the end zone. After another high snap, the extra point was good, and the Tigers led 29-20 with 1:45 left in the third quarter.
Starting on the Wildcat 45, LaValle took a handoff to the right, burst through a hole, and was wrapped up after ten yards. He dragged the tackler another 11 yards, all the way down to the Fridley 34. Seven plays later, the legs of Lewis and LaValle got the ball near the goal line. On third and goal from the two, LaValle bulled his way up the middle and dove over the goal line for the score. The extra point cut the Tiger lead to 29-27 with 8:45 remaining in the game. The Wildcats forced a three and out on the ensuing Fridley drive and took over at their own 36 after the punt. On the first play, Schmidt took a handoff left and used a nice hip fake to break free. He sped down the left side of the field before being knocked out of bounds at the 25-yard line, a gain of 39 yards. On third and three from the 18, Lewis kept the ball and ran through a nice hole up the middle for a touchdown. After an offsides penalty, LaValle went up the middle for the two-point conversion, and the Wildcats had their first lead of the game at 35-29 with 6:05 remaining.
But did that lead last long? Not in this game. On just the second play of Fridley’s next drive, from the Wildcat 49, running back Lex Korti took a handoff right, ran through a nice hole, put a hip fake on a Wildcat defensive back at the 35 and ran untouched down the right sideline for a touchdown. After an uneventful extra point – a rarity in this game – the Tigers had retaken the lead at 36-35. The Wildcats started the ensuing drive on their own 38. After two runs by LaValle gave them a first down at the 50, Jacob Showers took a handoff to the right and ran for 18 yards. After more runs by LaValle, the Wildcats faced second and five at the 13. Lewis dropped back to attempt just his second pass of the game. He tried to throw a screen pass to the left, but a Tiger defensive lineman batted it up into the air. Luckily, the ball fell harmlessly to the turf, and the clock stopped with 1:36 left in the game. On fourth and four from the 12, LaValle went up the middle for seven yards and a first down. On the next play, LaValle took a hand off right, was hit at the two and again dove into the end zone for a touchdown. On the two-point conversion attempt, LaValle walked through a big hole up the middle and into the end zone. The Wildcats led 43-36 with 55.2 seconds remaining and could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, from Fridley’s own 25, Newton took the snap and rolled left. He cut back to the right and was off to the races. He ran past a pile of Wildcat tacklers along the way, cut inside at the 20 and headed into the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown to cut the Wildcat lead to 43-42 with 38 seconds left in the game. Rather than kick the extra point and likely head into overtime, the Tigers decided to go for two, and, as described above, the conversion failed, keeping the score at 43-42. The Fridley kicker bounced the onside kick to the right, and a Fridley player appeared to grab it near the sideline after only nine yards, which should have been a penalty that gave the Wildcats the ball. But it ended up not mattering, as he must have fumbled the ball when he was swarmed under by the Wildcats. The referees eventually awarded the ball to the Wildcats, and the celebration began soon thereafter.
“That was exciting,” said Weiss. “Maybe a little bit too exciting. But at the end of the day, the result is the same and we are on our way to the state tournament. The big story line ended up being how we stopped the two-point conversion to win the game. We had made a very good drive down the field and scored to take the lead with very little time left on the clock. But, as we saw, there was enough time left for them to make something happen. The game ended up in our favor after all the swings back and forth and up and down. I was pretty grateful it ended up like that.”
Weiss continued “I’ve got to give our guys a lot of credit. This was not a well-played game, but we were relislient and made a lot of big plays. The sequence at the end was a microcosm of the game. Fridley scored on a 75-yard play, ready to go for two and win the game. Our guys gathered themselves and said, ‘we’re going to stop this play.’ And they did. Earlier in the season, I don’t think we would have rebounded as quickly. The guys showed maturity, resiliency, and just plain grit at the end. We were playing a great team and made a lot of mistakes, but I give our guys credit for sticking in there, not pointing fingers at each other and scrapping and doing whatever it took to win.”
After running the ball 30 times last week, Wildcat fullback Evan LaValle “only” ran the ball 20 times this week, for 139 yards and three touchdowns. Blake Schmidt had five carries for 87 yards and a score as the Wildcats piled up 308 yards on the ground. For the Tigers, quarterback MJ Newton ran for 162 yards, on 13 highlight-film carries, and two touchdowns. He was also nine for 14 passing for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Tiger running back Lex Korti had 15 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown.
The Wildcats play in the toughest Class 4AAAA district in the state, North Central-White. This is shown by the fact that three teams from the North Central-White District are in the state tournament – the Wildcats, the Rocori Spartans, and last year’s state champions, the Hutchinson Tigers. And for good measure, the Wildcats’ closest neighbor, the North Branch Vikings, will also be playing in the state tournament.
The Wildcats go into the state tournament as a pretty healthy team. Weiss said, “We haven’t had any real major injuries this year, just some bumps and bruises.”
So, what do we know about Simley? Weiss said “We’ve scrimmaged them in the past, so we have some familiarity with them. There coach is a real good guy, and they’ve been in the state tournament the last couple of years. They spread out their formations, but they are mostly a run team. They will be a tough opponent for us, but at this point in the season they all are.” And the Wildcats, who may have played the toughest schedule in Class 4AAAA this season, are battle-tested and ready to face the challenge.