October 7, 2022 at 12:27 p.m.
The squads faced off twice last year in one score games, with North Branch taking the regular season win, but Grand Rapids getting the big one, beating the Vikes in the section championship game to go to state.
Their game Friday, September 30 may have been the best of the bunch, with undefeated Grand Rapids prevailing on a Hail Mary, with one-point-two seconds left—completing a 10 point fourth quarter comeback over a shocked NB team that suffered their first loss of the season.
The game started out well for the Thunderhawks. They took the opening drive right down the field, ripping off a few decent gains to move into North Branch territory. That’s where they hit a 24 yard rush backed up by a 17 yard scoring scamper to go up 6-0. Their extra point attempt was good, and Rapids was quickly up 7-0.
North Branch, however, has a quick strike offense of its own. After a one yard gain on the first play of the game for NB, senior quarterback Preston Peterson dropped a beautiful pass over the Grand Rapids defense that had bit on the play fake, and senior tight end Adam Johnstone rumbled for 40 yards before being shoved out of bounds.
Two plays later, Peterson called his own number and scampered around the left side untouched for an 18 yard touchdown.
North Branch’s two point conversion, which they’ve been so good at this year, was stuffed by the Hawk defense and the deficit remained at 7-6 in favor of Rapids.
The two teams’ defenses then stepped up for a bit.
They each forced a three and out on the next possession, but that ended with Grand Rapids having the ball again.
They methodically drove down the field and found themselves in a third and five on North Branch’s 17 yard line. The quarterback completed a comeback route that was going to be well short of the first down marker, but some nifty moves by the wide receiver and some good downfield blocks sprung him all the way across the field and he was able to weave all the way to the endzone. The extra point was good, leading to a 14-6 cushion for GR.
North Branch’s offense again mimicked what the Hawks did from their drive. The Vikings went on a 13 play drive, highlighted by a 19 yard run from Peterson on a fourth and one from Rapids’ 27 yard line. Two plays later, Peterson hit sophomore tight end Nathan Edwards-Gaona for a seven yard touchdown, pulling NB within a pair at 14-12.
Their two point try came up just short to tie the game, and they remained down two with just a few minutes left in the first half.
The North Branch defense was able to grab an interception on the ensuing drive, but they were too short on time to be able to capitalize on the turnover.
The Vikings received the second half kick off, and a nice return set them up all the way in Rapids’ territory at the 41 yard line.
Their opportunity, though, seemed squandered when they lost yards on their drive and faced a fourth and 13 from Rapids’ 44 yard line. Johnstone trotted out to punt, but instead they executed a fake perfectly.
Johnstone hit Vinny Boeck, who had lined up as a gunner, with a strike, gaining 20 yards and keeping NB’s drive alive. The gamble proved to pay massive, immediate dividends, as Peterson struck again, hitting Loghan Croal out of the backfield for a 24 yard touchdown on the very next play, giving NB their first lead of the game at 18-14. North Branch again failed at the two point conversion, and their lead remained at four.
But, the NB defense was up to the task with linebacker Nolen Volner making two great open field tackles to force Rapids into a three and out. The defenses took over from there, with the two teams trading possesions without anyone gaining a first down.
After four straight drives between the two teams resulting in quick punts, North Branch finally broke through after starting on their own 32. Senior Sam Robillard bowled his way through multiple defenders on the way to a 43 yard rush that brough NB deep into Grand Rapids territory as the game entered the fourth quarter.
Two plays later, Peterson continued his hot night, throwing a jump ball into double coverage to Johnstone in the endzone, and the 6’4” senior high-pointed the ball and came down with a tough 25 yard touchdown catch, giving NB a 24-14 lead. NB’s two point conversion was gain stymied, with them leaving a total of eight points on the field in those conversions, but they were two scores up without much time remaining in the game.
Absolute disaster struck, though, for North Branch on the next drive. Rapids isn’t a quick strike team in general, but after gaining nine yards on their first play, they ran a counter play they don’t use often and the GR running back was able to make a man miss at the line of scrimmage, and once he got into open space, NB couldn’t bring him down and he finished off a 53 yard touchdown run, breathing life into the Thunderhawk sideline. GR went for two, but missed the conversion, leaving the score at 24-20 in favor of NB.
Facing their biggest drive of the season to date, North Branch gained just five yards on their first two plays, leaving them in a third and five. But Robillard ran with a purpose on the third down play, bowling over a GR defender and getting downfield for a massive 38 yard gain. It allowed the Vikes to move closer to scoring and to burn more time off the clock.
After two runs got them to third and four, the Vikes went to the passing well again, but this time it didn’t pay off as Peterson was sacked for a three yard loss to put NB into a fourth and seven spot.
There wasn’t any benefit in punting, and they don’t have a kicker that can hit from that range, so the coaches decided to go for it on fourth and seven from Grand Rapids’ 22 yard line.
It was a pass play designed to go to Joey Donahue, but Donahue was dragged down at the line of scrimmage in a blatant penalty. The referees decided to swallow the whistle in that spot, though, and Peterson was left to throw it up to Johnstone again, but this time he couldn’t come up with the acrobatic catch, turning the ball over on downs to Rapids.
The Thunderhawks started the drive very well, gaining 42 yards in the first four plays, getting down to NB’s 36 yard line.
Time was starting to work against Rapids though. They ran a few more plays, converting on a third and three, and got all the way down to NB’s 19 yard line, but faced a third and six with just 15 seconds left. The Thunderhawks tried the old Hook and Ladder play to the outside left, but North Branch read it perfectly and shut it down for no gain, forcing GR into a fourth and six with the game on the line.
Rapids lined up for the play and their quarterback rolled right scanning for receivers, and he found a teammate in the back of the end zone and heaved it up. North Branch defended it fairly well, but the receiver made a great play on the ball, catching it for the touchdown and the Grand Rapids lead as the Thunderhawk sideline reupted in joy and North Branch’s sideline had their hearts ripped out. The extra point was good and Rapids retook the lead at 27-24 with just 1.2 seconds left in the game.
North Branch did get a shot at a kick return but after a few laterals, they were tackled and the final buzzer sounded.
The win moved Rapids to 5-0 on the year, as they are ranked second in the state in Class AAAA. North Branch, who was ranked seventh coming into the game, is now 4-1, although the loss shouldn’t hurt their ranking too much.
But, the Vikings must regroup now as they host Duluth Denfeld on Friday, October 7, and the Hunters are 2-3 on the year so far, but just beat a previously undefeated and Class AAA ranked Aitkin squad.