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Football: West Central Area-Ashby makes big plays when needed most to fend off Hawley

The Nuggets (1-3) would not go away on Friday night as they cut a 28-8 deficit at the break to a one-possession game twice in the second half, but the connection of running back Anthony Sykora as a passer to Cole Anderson led a series of big plays that helped the Knights move to 3-1.

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West Central Area-Ashby senior running back Anthony Sykora races 68 yards for a touchdown on the first offensive play for the Knights in their win over Hawley on Sept. 23, 2022. Sykora scored three rushing touchdowns, and he also threw to senior receiver Cole Anderson for two big gains that led to touchdowns for the Knights in their 40-26 win over the Nuggets.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
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BARRETT — This fall football season will always feel like a big part is missing for West Central Area-Ashby with players and coaches continuing to deal with losing senior Tyler Stone to a car accident on Sept. 11. But football has the potential to be an avenue to some sense of normalcy, at least for a couple hours each week.

Friday night with Hawley in town was the program’s second game without Stone. The Knights won 35-13 over Pillager on Sept. 16 during an emotional night. Friday’s win over Hawley was a tale of two halves as WCA-Ashby built a 20-point lead in the first half and then held on for a 40-26 win that was closer than the final score even indicates.

“It’s definitely a little bit different without him,” WCA-Ashby senior Cole Anderson said of Stone. “We’ve played ball with him since we were just little kids, but it’s a chance for us, I don’t want to say to forget, but to blank out everything and play the game we all love.”

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West Central Area-Ashby junior linebacker Nas Dotts grabs the arm of Hawley quarterback Noah Nelson to try to get to a loose ball after Dotts hit Nelson and forced a fumble in the Knights' win over the Nuggets on Sept. 23, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

It was a wild start as Hawley’s Bradley Olson took the opening kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown that made it 8-0 after the conversion run from Derek Tibbetts. On the Knights’ first offensive play, WCA-Ashby senior running back Anthony Sykora ran 68 yards for a touchdown.

It was the first of 28 unanswered points going into halftime for WCA-Ashby.

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Sykora added another touchdown run of 8 yards to give his team a 12-8 lead in the first quarter. Junior quarterback Brady Lindquist scored on two rushing touchdowns from inside the 2-yard line. The second of those was set up by a 46-yard pass from Sykora to Anderson after Sykora had taken the pitch in the backfield.

That play has caused defenses fits many times over the past couple seasons with Sykora’s ability to run and throw when he gets to the outside. Sykora and Anderson connected again on the 2-point conversion to give the Knights a 28-8 lead right before the half.

“Anthony is such a dynamic athlete that when he has the ball in his hands, you have to respect that and bring people to him,” Knights head coach Nate Wood said. “Then it allows others, and Cole is really good at this, to find open space and get open. It helps that Anthony has a pretty dang good arm too.”

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Hawley regrouped and made it a one-possession game twice over the final two quarters.

Sophomore receiver Levi Lelm had two second-half touchdowns for the Nuggets. The first came on a 16-yard run, and the second on an 18-yard catch on a pass from sophomore quarterback Noah Nelson. That cut Hawley’s deficit to 28-20 on the first play of the fourth quarter.

The Knights responded with a drive that spanned 12 plays and 54 yards. Lindquist, who is in his first year starting at quarterback on varsity, had a big passing play over the middle to Anderson that set up the Knights inside the Hawley 20. Sykora then scored his third touchdown of the game, this time on a 5-yard run that made it a 34-20 advantage.

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West Central Area-Ashby junior quarterback Brady Lindquist looks for an opening near the goal line against Hawley on Sept. 23, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“It’s all about leadership,” Anderson said of withstanding that Hawley run. “We talk about it all the time in practice that we need to come together, but what it all comes down to on the offensive end is the man taking charge of the huddle, which is our quarterback. Watching (Lindquist) grown into becoming a leader, since even the beginning of the season, he’s come a long way. He did a great job tonight even when they were coming back.”

Both teams had one more dramatic drive in them. Nelson completed a 12-yard passing touchdown to Mason Gratton that made it 34-26 with 3:29 left. Sykora then connected with Anderson again on a passing play to put the Nuggets away.

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Sykora rolled out of the pocket and threw a deep ball down the right sideline. Four defenders were near Anderson, but Anderson got behind all of them and hauled in a 41-yard catch to the 2-yard line. Lindquist found Anderson two plays later on a touchdown that put the game away.

“Me and Anthony, we just click,” Anderson said. “We’ve been playing ball since 3rd grade, and I told coach Wood to call the play. I knew Anthony was going to throw it whether I had nobody on me or if there’s five guys on me. That’s just the kind of trust we have between each other. He threw a great ball. He put it up for me to catch it, and I just came down with it.”

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West Central Area-Ashby senior lineman Justin Blascyk pressures Hawley quarterback Noah Nelson on Sept. 23, 2022.
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Sykora and Anderson were two huge pieces to last season’s state runner-up team for the Knights, and Wood had faith in them to call a play that gave them an opportunity to get the win.

“Hawley was bringing the house, and we knew they were thinking it’s second and whatever, we’re going to run the ball and burn clock,” Wood said. “We thought we had a chance to catch them off guard. Anthony and Cole have been doing that for a while now. I trust them completely. If they say they want to go make a play, I trust them to do that.”

West Central Area-Ashby’s only loss this fall came to one of the top Class AA programs in the state in Barnesville during the season opener. The Knights have responded to that with three straight wins by a combined score of 118-46.

Hawley is a Midwest (White) District opponent for WCA-Ashby, but not a section team. The Knights improved to 3-1 in the district on the same night that the two undefeated teams in the league, Osakis and Barnesville, played each other.

“Everyone knows our goals and high aspirations,” Anderson said. “We want to make it back to where we were last year, but we got to come together as a team. Just keep on playing hard-nosed football, keep our heads down and play.”

Barnesville looks like the clear favorite now in the district race after rolling over Osakis in a 51-8 final. The Trojans are 4-0 overall, having outscored opponents 151-14.

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Barnesville plays out of Section 8AA, while Osakis, WCA-Ashby and Wadena-Deer Creek are all 3-1 atop the Section 6AA standings. The Knights play Osakis in Barrett on Oct. 14 and do not play Wadena-Deer Creek during the regular season.

Wood said this group will learn from how Hawley got back into the game on Friday night and grow from it. His goals for the rest of the season for his players are straight forward — continue to be resilient and focus on having fun playing football.

“That’s the biggest thing,” Wood said. “These last two weeks have not been fun, and it’s been really, really hard. I want these boys to use football as an outlet and to come together and enjoy themselves and not worry about anything else. To enjoy the beauty that high school football is in the fall and forget about anything else.”

WCA-ASHBY     12 16 0 12 - 40

HAWLEY            8 0 6 12 - 26

SCORING - FIRST QUARTER - HAWLEY - Bradley Olson 75-yard kickoff return; Derek Tibbetts 2-point conversion run (8-0); WCA-ASHBY - Anthony Sykora 68-yard run; Missed conversion (8-6); WCA-ASHBY - Anthony Sykora 8-yard run; Missed conversion (12-8 WCA-A)

SECOND QUARTER - WCA-ASHBY - Brady Lindquist 2-yard run; Jake Norby 2-point conversion run (20-8); WCA-ASHBY - Lindquist 1-yard run; Anthony Sykora 2-point conversion pass to Cole Anderson (28-8)

THIRD QUARTER - HAWLEY - Levi Lelm 16-yard run; Conversion no good (28-14)

FOURTH QUARTER - Noah Nelson 18-yard pass to Levi Lelm; Conversion no good (28-20); WCA-ASHBY - Anthony Sykora 5-yard run; PAT no good (34-20); HAWLEY - Noah Nelson 12-yard pass to Mason Gratton; Conversion no good (34-26); WCA-ASHBY - Brady Lindquist 2-yard pass to Cole Anderson (40-26)

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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