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West Central Area-Ashby stymies the highest scoring team in Class AA to secure a spot at U.S. Bank Stadium in the semifinals

Moose Lake-Willow River came into Thursday's Class AA state quarterfinals averaging almost 50 points per game, but the Knights held them to 6 points and scored just enough themselves to earn a spot in the state tournament semifinals.

West Central Area-Ashby had a tall task in front of it going into the Class AA state quarterfinals in Brainerd on Thursday with one of the most decorated state participants in Minnesota standing in its way.

Moose Lake-Willow River has played in the state tournament 15 times since 2000, including runner-up finishes in 2009, 2011 and 2012. The Knights were playing in their fourth-ever state tournament (1995, 1999, 2017) and second since Ashby joined West Central Area as a co-op.

Moose Lake-Willow River had posted five shutouts, including a 63-0 win over Mesabi East in the section championship. The Rebels allowed opponents to score just 6.6 points a night. That’s best in Class AA. They were also the highest scoring team in Class AA, averaging 49.8 points-per game coming into the state tournament.

The Knights (10-1) were daunted by none of those numbers on paper. On the field, they looked like the better team in winning a 14-6 game that sends West Central Area-Ashby to the Class AA state semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium on Nov. 19 against Maple River (11-1).

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“We knew they were a really good team, but we knew if we played well that we could beat them,” WCA-Ashby senior quarterback Evan Paulson said. “They looked really good, but we could see that if we played our best and came out with confidence and played our game, we could beat them.”

The Knights had seen in watching video that the Rebels (8-1) had dominated most of their opponents at the line of scrimmage. Moose Lake-Willow River runs right at teams behind that line and a talented group of backs led by junior Jackson Thompson.

The Rebels’ previous season low in points was 28 in a win over Hermantown on Sept. 3. They had scored 55 points or more four different times, but their only touchdown Thursday came after a blocked punt and penalty gave them the ball at the WCA-Ashby 12-yard line late in the fourth quarter.

Logan Orvedahl ran in the touchdown from 9 yards out to make it 14-6 with 5:23 left, but a fourth-down incompletion near the Knights' 40-yard line on the Rebels' final drive finished off the game after a couple kneel downs from the offense.

West Central Area-Ashby stopped four different Moose Lake-Willow River drives inside the Knights' 30-yard line. That included a key defensive play by sophomore linebacker Nas Dotts late in the first half that turned the ball over on downs at the WCA-Ashby 3-yard line in a 6-0 game.

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“Our line played great tonight," WCA-Ashby junior receiver and defensive back Cole Anderson said. "They’ve been playing great all season. Our linebackers, they’re really good. Our team as a whole, we felt we could play very well against them.”

Anderson and Paulson had a huge impact on both of the Knights’ scoring drives. Paulson hit Anderson perfectly in stride near the right sideline late in the first half as Anderson went 66 yards down to the 3-yard line. Junior running back Anthony Sykora ran in a touchdown one play later to make it 6-0.

“Coach (Nate) Wood called a great play,” Anderson said. “Evan just threw it out there and trusted me to make a play. It was a beautiful ball, and I just ran after I caught it.”

The Knights got the ball first after halftime and went to the air again. On 3rd-down-and-7, senior Torin Olson caught a 40-yard pass. Paulson later connected with Anderson again, this time for a 24-yard touchdown that made it 14-0 after that duo teamed up for the 2-point conversion as well.

“We saw we could throw on them, so we just tried to take advantage of that,” Paulson said.

The final big passing play came on a 3rd-and-16 with a little more than three minutes left in the game. Paulson’s ball hung in the air for Olson along the left sideline.

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Olson was covered well, but he won a jump ball that extended the Knights’ drive. Moose Lake-Willow River eventually got the ball back after a fumble recovery later in the drive, but the Rebels had to go 78 yards in the final couple minutes to try to tie the game.

“It was huge,” Wood said of Olson’s fourth-quarter catch and his team’s passing game as a whole. “We didn’t know what the weather was going to be tonight. We were worried it was going to be windy or a blizzard and force us to be one-dimensional because we’ve been so balanced this year. Luckily, the kids just executed and we still threw the ball.”

The teams played through a light mist much of the first half before it turned to a wet snow in the second half.

“I really think we just played with a ton of heart both last game and tonight,” Wood said. “The kids just believed in themselves, believed we were going to execute and believed we were going to win. It was awesome.”

Skill position players shined for the Knights in big moments, but beating a team like the Rebels requires winning at the line of scrimmage. Wood felt Moose Lake-Willow River likely had not played against a line as good as WCA-Ashby could throw at them.

“Even though it’s late in the season and it’s a huge game, it really boils down to fundamentals of football,” Wood said. “They don’t try to hide who they are. They’re very well coached. They’re a great team and they’re going to come at you and say, ‘This is what we do. It’s up to you to stop us.’ You have to stop it by getting off the ball at the line of scrimmage, tackling low and making plays behind the sticks. We did that tonight.”

Winning the state quarterfinal game in football carries extra meaning for teams because it means the opportunity to play at U.S. Bank Stadium in the semifinals.

“We’re stoked as a team, but the goal stays the same,” Anderson said. “We’re going to go in there and finish and get business done. Our confidence is high. We know we’re good too. We’re all good here now. We know what we have to do, and if we execute our game plan, put together a full game, we’re going to be hard to stop.”

The Knights play Maple River at 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 19. The Eagles beat previously-unbeaten Pipestone Area 39-20 in their quarterfinals game on Friday.

West Central Area-Ashby had to go through one of the top Class AA teams in Osakis (8-2) to win the Section 6AA title by getting a late touchdown on Nov. 5.

The Knights harnessed the energy and emotion from that win to play another good game against the Rebels. They will have to do it again to play for a championship on Nov. 26.

“I’m hoping they respond like we did after last week too, which was a big, emotional win,” Wood said. “We came and had to get after them a little bit at practice on Monday about everyone buying in and focusing. They responded so well, and we had a great few days of practice. They came ready to go again, and we’re working on being 1-0 again the next week.”

MOOSE LAKE-WILLOW RIVER 0 0 0 6 - 6

WCA-ASHBY 0 6 8 0 - 14

TOTALS - Moose Lake-WR - Offense - 55-214; Passing - 5-12, 50 yards; Rushing - 43-164; Penalties - 4-30; Turnovers - 1; WCA-Ashby - Offense - 52-319; Turnovers - 1

WCA-ASHBY OFFENSE - Passing - Evan Paulson - 11-16, 239 yards, TD; Rushing - Anthony Sykora - 17-61, TD; Mattson Hoff - 7-25; Hunter Norby - 3-5; Evan Paulson - 7-(-11); Receiving - Torin Olson - 3-104; Cole Anderson - 4-92, TD; Sykora - 3-31; Hoff - 1-12

WCA-ASHBY DEFENSE - Hunter Norby - 6 tackles, 1 TFL; Sykora - 5.5 tackles; Tyler Stone - 3.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL; Nas Dotts - 3.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL; Carson Spangler - 3 tackles; Mattson Hoff - 2.5 tackles, 1 TFL; Beau Robinson - 2.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL; Cole Anderson - 2 tackles; Reubens Swanson - 1.5 tackles; Sam Heeter - 1 tackle; Torin Olson - 1 tackle; Brady Lindquist - 1 tackle; Colton Lindquist - 1 tackle

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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