When a plan comes together
West Central Area-Ashby football coaches went all in with their game plan for the Section 6, Class AA title game in the Fargodome last Friday, and they weren't going to waste any time making a statement.
The Knights lined up with five wide receivers on the first play against Pillager. Three to the left. Two receivers to the right. The Huskies came out in man coverage with a safety deep, just like WCA expected.
"Right before the snap, (the safety) sprinted over and went to the two side and I knew (Kaden Spindler) was going to streak right down the middle on a go route," senior quarterback Ross Anderson said. "I was like, 'Spindler, you're going to be wide open.' "
Spindler looked back at Anderson, gave a smile and waited for the snap. The outside linebacker matched up with him had no chance. Sixty-one yards later - touchdown.
"We moved Kaden into that inside spot because we knew he was going to be faster than that linebacker," WCA head coach Jon Moore said. "We knew as soon as they lined up in their defense that this was going to be a touchdown."
Things just snowballed from there. The second play from scrimmage, Anderson found Parker Clavin for a 59-yard touchdown. Another 28-yard touchdown to Spindler and it was 20-0 before the Huskies knew what hit them.
"We were pretty nervous," Moore said with a smile about how they attacked Pillager. "But we knew this was the only way we were going to be able to put this many points up."
The passing game never materialized the first time WCA-Ashby met Pillager. The Huskies ran all over the Knights in a 42-12 final on Sept. 30. In windy conditions, the Knights ran the ball 34 times and completed just 4-of-11 passes for 60 yards.
They learned their lesson from that game. There was no sense in trying to beat the Huskies at something Pillager was simply better at.
"We all knew that they had kind of kicked the crap out of us at homecoming," Anderson said. "We knew they had some big linebackers and we couldn't go man-to-man and block them. We just thought, why not air it out?"
That was their only chance, Moore said.
Moore praised Anderson's ability to make smart decisions with the ball. He also liked the matchups the Knights would have with their five receivers lined up man-to-man against Pillager's secondary.
"We have five really good receivers, so we just put those guys out there," Spindler said. "We knew Ross was a good quarterback who can place the ball. He has more than one or two options. All five of us are pretty good receivers, so that built our confidence up a lot. Once we kept scoring, it just built our confidence even more."
Kept scoring they did. It was 34-16 after three quarters before Pillager made a furious comeback. The Huskies got it to within 42-38 with 6:42 remaining, but that's where it ended after junior Scottie Johnson forced a fumble that was recovered by senior Chris Onstad.
This was a small-school Minnesota football game. Teams aren't supposed to put up huge numbers through the air, but that's what the Knights did to get the win.
Anderson was 19-of-29 passing for 410 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. Spindler caught 10 balls for 198 yards and three scores, while Clavin added two receptions for 102 yards. The Knights creativity worked exactly how they hoped it would.
"Teams don't throw the ball like that in our section," Moore said. "They probably thought we were going to come out and do the double wing or some I-formation stuff and run the ball, maybe throw a couple passes in there. I knew they weren't going to be ready for a five-wide attack."
Part of a special season
The win over the Huskies put the Knights into the state tournament for the first time since 1999, and it came after a rough season for this program on a number of fronts.
The Knights were 2-7 a year ago. Losses are tough to take, but they were put in perspective even before the season started with the tragic death of Ross' dad, Pat, in a utility vehicle accident on July 30, 2016.
For many, Pat was the face of WCA after growing up in the community and serving as the school's dean of students and activities director since 2010.
"This is a big deal," Moore said of this 2017 season. "I had a conversation with one of our parents today and she said you could tell Pat was there with you guys that night. He was watching over and making sure Ross was doing a good job. ... He's a great leader, he knows the game better than all the kids out there and probably some of the coaches, too. I'm not surprised he was able to do it."
The Knights started 1-2 after a 21-0 loss to Barnesville on their home field on Sept. 15. That proved to be a bit of a turning point, with Ross getting some advice from his uncle.
"We lost 21-0 and I didn't have the best game. He's like, 'You're a senior out here. You got to start doing stuff for your team.' That kind of motivated me a lot and we kind of went on a tear there after homecoming. It's been a lot of fun."
Anderson is just happy to be a part of this for a program that has gotten to experience the state tournament just two other times in history.
"The past how many years everyone is like, 'WCA football, they suck. Why would we even go out when they've been terrible for how many years?' Anderson said. "Once you start winning, then the stands are packed. School is amazing. The teachers and all the students. It's pretty unbelievable."