During the West Central Area-Ashby football team's 4-0 start last season, they won with the big numbers the offense put on the scoreboard. But after finishing the year 6-4 record a second-round Section 6AA exit, the defense took the necessary steps forward to solidify the Knight's status as a contender.
WCA-A (2-0) won its home opener on Friday night 24-6 over the Crookston Pirates (1-1). Despite giving up a touchdown, the Knights have gone over 79 consecutive minutes without allowing an offensive score.
"For us, it's the experience we have now that we didn't have last year," senior defensive back Jordan Lohse said. "We had a lot of first and second-year starters, and they've all got another year of playing under their belt. With that experience, you know you have the edge over your opponent because the game slows down. You know what's coming to you now."
The lone touchdown the Pirates put on the board broke the scoreless tie late in the first quarter. After Lohse broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone, the Knights went three-and-out in their first offensive possession of the game. On the punt, a botched snap sailed the ball into the end zone. Gunner Gunderson jumped on the loose ball to give Crookston a 6-0 lead.
The Knights' offense was stagnant to start the game. Even after the special team mishap, WCA-A went three-and-out again. After the teams flipped sides for the second quarter, sophomore running back Anthony Sykora gave the Knights a jolt. His 53-yard carry sparked the offense before senior running back Jaden Norby punched in the six-yard score. Evan Paulson's two-point pass to Torin Olson was good.
Last year, Norby took most of the offensive snaps under center. Now, his role has changed into a power back that is crucial in short-down scenarios.
"We are lucky to have some skilled backs that run really hard," WCA-A head coach Nate Wood said. "We have Anthony, Jordan and Jaden, and they're all different types of backs. Sometimes you can't teach that. It's their innate nature that helps them be successful in their roles."
Midway through the second quarter, the Knights got the ball back near their 30-yard line. Lohse broke free for a significant gain, but the play was called back after a holding infraction. Lohse was able to find open space again before another holding call made it first-and-28. On Third-and-21, Lohse got loose for the third time as the Knights picked up a momentum-swinging first down. WCA-A would later score on Norby's second touchdown run.
"That was a crazy play. We were just trying to get a little more room to punt," Wood said. "He was able to squirt out of there and get us a first down. I think that was the turning point in the game. A lot of that comes down to the experience factor. Crookston has some good athletes. They're big, and they play really hard. I think some of them are still learning where they fit in their schemes."
After a scoreless third quarter, the Knights piled on their third unanswered touchdown when Sykora found the end zone from five yards out. The touchdown run followed an acrobatic 26-yard catch from Norby to put the Knights in the red zone.
With just under four minutes remaining, Lohse put the game on ice with an interception. His play on both sides of the ball set the tone for the WCA-A's night.
"He's a heck of a football player," Wood said. "He has that kind of quiet, calm presence that you want your leaders to have. He leads by example. He's always striving to do the right thing. Every year, he's been a player that's worked really hard to get better. It's really shown in his play."
The Knights defense held the Pirates to 117 yards of total offense on 43 plays. While they only made two tackles for loss and a late-game interception, consistently preventing their opponents from reaching the first-down marker is translating to more time on offense. The Knights had 217 yards of total offense on 50 plays.
Where the Knights need to take the next step is getting out to better starts. In their season-opener against Ottertail Central, the Knights trailed by 18 before scoring 30 unanswered points. Friday, it took WCA-A three drives to get a first down. Wood believes the veteran leadership and more time on the practice field after the COVID-19 delays will help spark better starts on offense.
"Both last week and this week these guys had to be resilient," Wood said. "They kept fighting the good fight instead of rolling over. I think these issues we are having at the beginning of games will fix themselves with experience."
Like the rest of the Knights, Lohse was excited to get back on the field this fall. However, he had a feeling that the Minnesota State High School League's decision to postpone the season wouldn't last long before deciding to bring it back.
"I just knew that we couldn't play in the spring," Lohse said. "I had a feeling that they would listen to all of the athletes and schools and bring football back. We are so fortunate to have a season. Even if it isn't what we pictured, we can't take any moment on the field for granted, because we don't know if any game will be our last."
CROOKSTON 6 0 0 0 - 6
WEST CENTRAL AREA-ASHBY 0 16 0 8 - 24
SCORING- FIRST QUARTER- CROOKSTON- WCA-A botched snap, Gunnar Gunderson 0-yard FR TD, Two-point conversion no good; SECOND QUARTER- WCA-A- Jaden Norby 6-yard TD run Evan Paulson two-point conversion pass to Torin Olson; WCA-A Jaden Norby 3-yard TD run, Evan Paulson two-point conversion pass to Jaden Norby; FOURTH QUARTER- WCA-A- Anthony Sykora 5-yard TD run, Evan Paulson two-point conversion pass to Ryder Staples;
PASSING- WCA-A- Evan Paulson 4-8, 59 yards; CROOKSTON- Easton Tangquist 1-6, 15 yards; RUSHING- WCA-A- Anthony Sykora 15 carries, 53 yards, 1 TD; Jaden Norby 13 carries, 47 yards, 2 TDs, Jordan Lohse 8 carries, 40 yards; Nate Kisgen 3 carries, 9 yards; Hunter Norby 1 carry, 7 yards; Torin Olson 1 carry, 1 yard; Mattson Hoff 1 carry, 1 yard; CROOKSTON- Ethan Boll 15 carries, 65 yards; Easton Tangquist 13 carries, 24 yards; Jaxon Wang 4 carries 15 yards; Jacob Hesby 3 carries, 7 yards; RECEIVING- WCA-A- Jaden Norby 1 catch, 26 yards; Tate Christenson 1 catch, 25 yards, Anthony Sykora 2 catches, 8 yards; CROOKSTON- zach Brown 1 catch, 15 yards; WCA-A DEFENSE- Jaden Norby 7.5 tackles, 9 assists, 0.5 TFL; Mattson Hoff- 5.5 tackles, 5 assists, 1 TFL; Tyler Stone 4.5 tackles, 5 assists, 0.5 TFL; Hunter Norby 3.5 tackles, 3 assisted; Shane Wrolson 3 tackles; 4 assists; Brady Reeve 2.5 tackles, 3 assists; Colton Lindquist 2.5 tackles, 3 assists; Anthony Sykora 2 tackles, 2 assists; Jordan Lohse 2 tackles, 4 assists; 1 INT; Kade Olson 2 tackles; Cole Anderson 1.5 tackles, 1 assist; Torin Olson 1 tackle; Austin Mattson 1 tackle, 2 assists;