Defense shines for second straight week as West Central Area-Ashby sits one win away from a championship
The Knights got a defensive score on a safety late in the third quarter when Hunter Norby stopped a Maple River run play in the end zone. That proved to be the winning points as WCA-Ashby won 8-7 over the Eagles to advance to the Class AA state championship game next Friday.
The West Central Area and Ashby schools are sports rivals throughout many of their Minnesota State High School League seasons, but these two communities have come together in football for one of the most memorable runs either school has ever had.
Now they have one more game together for a chance at a championship.
West Central Area-Ashby (11-1) beat Maple River (11-2) in an 8-7 game at U.S. Bank Stadium in the Class AA state semifinals on Friday. The Knights will play Chatfield (12-1) at 1 p.m. on Nov. 26 back at U.S. Bank Stadium as WCA-Ashby goes for its first-ever title against a Chatfield program that has won four, most recently the AA championship in 2013.
“We preach battling through adversity,” WCA-Ashby head coach Nate Wood said. “It might not always be your day, but you can trust your teammates...It wasn’t our greatest offensive day, but our defense stepped up. We’ve had other days where our offense has come through and done what they needed to do. We just trust each other.”
It was only fitting that the game came down to one last defensive stop on fourth down for WCA-Ashby. The Eagles faced a 4th-and-4 on the Knights’ 13-yard line, and Maple River head coach Dusty Drager said they thought about trying a game-winning field goal.
Junior Landon Fox is the Eagles’ quarterback and kicker, and he told coaches he needed a couple extra yards to feel comfortable attempting a kick. Maple River's offense stayed on the field and handed the ball off as the Knights’ stuffed the run for a turnover-on-downs that secured the win after three offensive kneel downs.
“At that point it really comes down to trusting each other and doing your job,” Wood said of that 4th-down play. “Don’t worry about what you think might happen. It’s read and react and do what you’ve done the whole season.”
The Knights scored first when a Mattson Hoff interception set up his team with great field position near the 50-yard line in the second quarter. On 4th-and-1 from the 16, running back Anthony Sykora took a handoff on a reverse and then found junior receiver Cole Anderson on a pass into the end zone for a 6-0 lead.
Maple River’s only scoring drive came in similar fashion. With less than two minutes left in the first half, Zachary Herrmann intercepted a Sykora pass around midfield to give the Eagles good field position. Maple River converted a 4th-and-5 on the drive, and Boden Simon ran in a 3-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left to make it 7-6 Maple River at the half.
It was the WCA-Ashby defense that scored the game-winning points late in the third quarter. Knights’ senior quarterback Evan Paulson threw a deep ball to Torin Olson who was in single coverage against Maple River’s Skyler Jenkins. Jenkins won a jump ball with Olson near the goal line and intercepted the ball at the Eagles’ own 1-yard line.
“It sucked for the offense, but throughout the season we’ve learned to flip the switch and move on to the next play,” Hoff, a senior running back and linebacker, said. “That’s our thing -- move on, next play. (The interception) sucked for the offense, but defensively it really gave us kind of a spark.”
Hoff said he knew it would be tough for Maple River to go 99 yards with the way the defense had been playing. WCA-Ashby figured to at least get the ball back in good field position. Instead, senior linebacker Hunter Norby got into the backfield on the Eagles’ second play of the series and got a tackle for loss in the end zone that led to a safety and an 8-7 lead.
That was the first of two big plays for Norby. With the Eagles driving late in the fourth quarter, he raced down Fox on a passing play on fourth down near the Knights’ 30-yard line for a sack. Norby had 9 total tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks.
“Hunter has been kind of a rock for us this whole year,” Wood said. “He doesn’t say a lot, and he just kind of does his best every play. This is probably the most emotion you’re ever going to see from Hunter Norby after he made those plays. It was awesome to see. He’s dependable. He does his job so well, and those were huge plays in the game.”
Both defenses were stingy all afternoon as the Knights totaled just 185 yards to Maple River’s 247. Nas Dotts led the Knights in tackles with 11, including 1.5 for loss. Hoff added nine tackles on a day where WCA-Ashby as a defensive unit had 8 tackles for loss that led to 51 yards lost for Maple River’s offense.
“I think we honestly play really strong as a team together,” Sykora said. “During practice this week, we were constantly practicing swarming the ball, get low and wrap and roll.”
The Eagles are a run-heavy team that rushed for almost 300 yards in their quarterfinal win against Pipestone Area on Nov. 12. The Knights held them to 91 yards rushing on 44 carries. West Central Area-Ashby forced Maple River coaches to alter the game plan a bit and try to find something through the air. Fox finished 14-of-22 passing for 156 yards.
“I’m pretty confident in our five or six guys we put in the box,” Drager said of an experienced offensive line for the Eagles. “We play some teams with some size and some speed. I thought we played a little sluggish up front, but those big cats were tired. West Central, the speed and the quickness they play with and the different blitzes they give you, that’s always a challenge when you’re a run-heavy team.”
It marks the second straight week that the Knights have stymied an opponent that came in with impressive offensive numbers. Maple River was held to nearly 30 points under its season average (34.6) on Friday. That’s after WCA-Ashby limited the highest-scoring team in Class AA Moose Lake-Willow River to just one touchdown in a 14-6 game on Nov. 11.
“It was probably one of the most physical games I’ve played in this year,” Knights’ senior lineman Tyler Stone said of Maple River. “It was close with Barnesville and games like that, but it all comes down to who wants it more. They wanted it really bad. I’ve never met a team that wanted it so bad. They have a lot of good seniors on that line, but somehow, thank God, we came out and got the win.”
The Knights have to go through a Chatfield team now that beat WCA-Ashby's district rival, Barnesville, 22-18 on Thursday. The Gophers average 37 points per game and have won 12 straight games since losing their season opener against Class AAA’s Plainview-Elgin-Millville (10-2) on Sept. 3.
The Knights have shown they can compete with anyone in Class AA through two wins at the state tournament. One more win and they can call themselves champions.
“We’ve played Barnesville and Osakis where all of those games were very, very close and very physical,” Wood said. “We need to have our minds ready that we’re going to go and this is going to be a very physical, well-coached game that we need to be ready for.”
WCA-ASHBY 0 6 2 0 - 8
MAPLE RIVER 0 7 0 0 - 7
TOTALS - WCA-ASHBY - Offense - 52-185; Rushing - 39-135; Passing - 3-13, 50 yards; First downs - 11; MAPLE RIVER - Offense - 66-247; Rushing - 44-91; Passing - 14-22, 156 yards; First downs - 17
WCA-ASHBY OFFENSE - PASSING - Evan Paulson - 2-10, 34 yards, 1 INT; Anthony Sykora - 1-3, 16 yards, TD, 2 INT; RUSHING - Anthony Sykora - 17-90; Mattson Hoff - 7-25; Hunter Norby - 5-15; Evan Paulson - 5-5; Carson Spangler - 1-2; RECEIVING - Hoff - 1-27; Cole Anderson - 1-16, TD; Sykora - 1-7
WCA-ASHBY DEFENSE - Nas Dotts - 11 tackles, 1.5 TFL; Hunter Norby - 9 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks; Hoff - 9 tackles, INT; Carson Spangler - 8 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack; Sykora - 6 tackles; Tyler Stone - 6 tackles; Cole Anderson - 5 tackles; Colton Lindquist - 5 tackles, 1 sack; Torin Olson - 5 tackles; Beau Robinson - 3 tackles; Brady Lindquist - 3 tackles; Sam Heeter - 2 tackles; Isaac Kreft - 2 tackles; Reubens Swanson - 1 tackle; Ryder Staples - 1 tackle; Justin Blascyk - 1 tackle