The West Central Area-Ashby football team scored on a 61-yard pass on its first play from scrimmage during the section championship win over Pillager on Nov. 3.
On Friday night in the Minnesota Class AA state quarterfinals, the Knights were on the other end of a big play during Moose Lake-Willow River’s opening play when senior running back Colton Little went 53 yards for a touchdown. After the Trent Juhl two-point conversion, it was 8-0. That was a sign of things to come as Little and the Rebels ran to a 41-14 win to advance to U.S. Bank Stadium for the state semifinals on Nov. 17.
“That was really hard for us,” WCA-Ashby senior running back Brady Sabolik said of Little’s first touchdown. “Going into the game, a few of us friends were talking and saying that first score is going to decide a lot. I guess they just wanted it more right away, and it shocked us.”
Little was dominant early and often. He scored on running plays of 53, 81, 43 and 16 yards. He finished the first half with 213 yards as the Rebels built a 28-0 lead by the break.
“He was a very good back,” Sabolik said. “He had the speed around the edge and he could hit hard too. He ran like it was his last game, and lucky for them it’s not.”
Moose Lake-Willow River didn’t complete a pass and only attempted two of them. The Rebels didn’t need to throw with Little leading a dominant run game. He finished with 291 yards on the ground. Juhl also had 106 yards rushing.
“We really didn’t expect him to run like that against us,” Knights head coach Jon Moore said of Little. “We knew he was a talented kid, but from what we saw we didn’t think he would do that. He came to play. He’s a wonderful athlete and kudos to those guys for making it to the next level.”
Turnovers hurt any chance of the Knights staying close. They gave the ball away four times in the first half, twice on interceptions, once on a lost fumble and another on a mishandled punt that ML-WR recovered. The Rebels scored off three of those takeaways.
Knights’ quarterback Ross Anderson threw for 410 yards in the section championship game, but the whole WCA-Ashby passing game had trouble moving the ball on Friday. Temperatures were near 20 degrees with snow falling much of the night.
“We wanted to think that the weather wasn’t going to have an effect on the way we threw the ball, but obviously it did,” Moore said. “Ross said it was difficult to throw, and the players said it was really tough to catch it. Even though we practiced all week in it, we just couldn’t get a handle on the ball.”
West Central Area-Ashby didn’t get on the board until the score was 35-0. The Knights halted the shutout on their first play of the fourth quarter when Anderson pitched to Sabolik for a four-yard rushing touchdown. Anderson then hit Kaden Spindler, who weaved his way through a few defenders for a 21-yard touchdown with about a minute left.
“We’ve never been in this position before, and it was just such an amazing experience being here tonight,” Sabolik said. “It’s a big deal. They’re saying, ‘You’re going to be on TV.’ We have this nice turf field we’re playing on. It’s really cool.”
The Rebels (7-5) were 2-5 after seven weeks this season but have now won five straight heading into the state semifinals against Pipestone Area (11-1).
The Knights wrap up their season with the third state tournament appearance in program history and a 7-5 record overall. They knocked off the top seed in their section to get here and won five of their last six games before Friday.
“It’s been a great experience for all of us,” Sabolik said. “That Fargodome game was amazing. We’ll remember that forever, and this game too.”
A loss on Friday did not take away from what this group accomplished already this season.
“They should be proud of where they got,” Moore said. “We hadn’t been to state in 19 years. Our community supported us this whole time. It was amazing for our kids and for all the communities in our football program. They shouldn’t be hanging their heads at all. They’re a great group of kids.”
MOOSE LAKE-WILLOW RIVER 14 14 7 6 - 41
WEST CENTRAL AREA-ASHBY 0 0 0 14 - 14
SCORING - FIRST QUARTER - ML-WR - Colton Little 53-yard run; Trent Juhl two-point conversion; ML-WR - Anakin Oswald 2-yard run; missed two-point conversion
SECOND QUARTER - ML-WR - Little 81-yard run; Blocked PAT; ML-WR - Little 43-yard run; Juhl two-point conversion
THIRD QUARTER - ML-WR - Juhl 8-yard run; Carter Johnson PAT
FOURTH QUARTER - WCA-Ashby - Brady Sabolik 4-yard run; Missed two-point conversion; ML-WR - Little 16-yard run; Missed PAT; WCA-Ashby - Ross Anderson 21-yard pass to Kaden Spindler; Anderson two-point conversion pass to Spindler